To the uninitiated, the attractive Welsh border town of Presteigne may seem an unlikely place to find a music festival, especially one that champions so many living composers. This year was no exception and of the 44 composers programmed in 16 musical events, no fewer than 22 are very much alive and active. Four out of the nine composers featured in the Joyful Company of Singers concert on Saturday afternoon were present and rightly acknowledged by the choir’s conductor Peter Broadbent. Indeed, across the six day celebration, the presence of Stephen McNeff (this year’s composer-in-residence), Roxanna Panufnik, Lynne Plowman and veteran John McCabe helped to give this wonderfully vibrant festival its special aura.

The regular return to Presteigne of many composers is mirrored by the return of several performing groups such as the Joyful Company of Singers - no strangers to Powys. Just as the Presteigne Festival’s artistic director George Vass showcases much new work, so too does Peter Broadbent and the JCS. Renowned for their virtuosity and intensity of spirit, (so their brochure declares) the JCS has a particular commitment to contemporary music which they amply demonstrated in their enterprising a cappella concert at St Mary’s church, Pembridge. Enterprise was also strikingly revealed in Lynne Plowman’s recently commissioned work The Mariner’s Compass – and here given its first performance. Derived from the 32 points of a medieval compass in use by Mediterranean seafarers, the work’s unusual text formed the basis for a colourful double choir seascape. It drew from Peter Broadbent and his singers an assured performance that did much to convey the intentions of the composer.

Joyful Company of Singers © Ben Ealovega
Joyful Company of Singers
© Ben Ealovega

Lynne Plowman’s deft handling of choral forces was no less confident than that of John McCabe, whose The Lily-white Rose demonstrated why we should become more familiar with this composer’s considerable choral output that spans some forty years. Originally conceived as part of an extended canvas entitled Songs of the Garden for soloists, chorus and ensemble, this beautiful setting of anonymous English words was reworked in 2009 for unaccompanied voices. Despite some uncertain intonation in places, JCS made a valiant case for this finely crafted work.

Belfast-born Stephen McNeff is another composer whose contemporary choral work may be unfamiliar to audiences. In The Song of Amergin - an atmospheric work from 2006 - JCS successfully conveyed the chant-like gestures of this ancient Irish text. Perhaps a warmer acoustic might have helped produce a deeper sense of mystery that the performance requires.

This and a greater sense of tonal colour might also have helped the performances of Elgar’s The Shower and The Fountain – two part-songs written in 1914 to words by the seventeenth-century Welsh poet Henry Vaughan. Elgar is well known for the wealth of his performance indications so it was disappointing that expressive opportunities were seldom taken and signs of articulation often failed to register. As you would expect from a choir that had once won The Sainsbury’s Choir of the Year competition their singing was neat and tidy, but it left no memorable impression and on occasion individual voices broke through a mostly well balanced choral texture. That said, the notoriously difficult soprano start to Andrzej Panufnik’s rarely performed Song to the Virgin Mary (a substantial piece written in 1964 for the Lake District Festival) was well executed and the composer’s intention to “evoke the adoration, warmth and pure faith of the Polish peasant” was mostly achieved. Any choir capable of presenting this demanding work must be commended, and while the accurate delivery of the notes by JCS was an impressive achievement, the manner of their delivery was sometimes another matter.

The singers were a little more at home with music by Alun Hoddinott (Three Shakespeare Songs) and young Australian composer Chris Williams (The Peaceful Night) in works that brought a fresh perspective to the Bard and Milton. The choral recital was book-ended by Michael Berkeley’s Listen, listen O my child and Roxanna Panufnik’s evocative Love Endureth. In their encore item the choir showed how relaxed their tone could become in Elgar’s As torrents in summer where Peter Broadbent and JCS finally looked as if they were enjoying themselves.