For six days in August, George Vass – Artistic Director of the Presteigne Festival – transforms the Welsh border town of Presteigne into a cultural hub, the quiet rural idyll given an artistic and creative makeover. This year at the 32nd Festival, seven world premières could be heard within the wonderfully diverse range of musical events that also included a handful of works by Belfast-born composer Stephen McNeff – this year’s composer-in-residence. There was also a celebration of the work of composer and pianist John McCabe (to mark his seventy-fifth birthday) and a perspective of Polish music, prompted by the centenary of Andrzej Panufnik. This theme served to illustrate a trajectory of Poland’s changing musical landscape over the last fifty years and included works by Górecki, Łutosławski, Andrzej and Roxanna Panufnik, Penderecki and Paveł Łukaszewski whose Requiem received its first performance on Sunday evening.

Joyful Company of Singers
Joyful Company of Singers
Bringing this newly commissioned work to life were the combined forces of the Presteigne Festival Orchestra, the Joyful Company of Singers, soloists Christopher Foster and Rachel Nicholls, all expertly handled under the baton of George Vass. Paveł Łukaszewski (b. 1968) is a contemporary Polish composer drawn by a strong faith to setting sacred texts and has, as a musical conservative, an interest in “renewed tonality”. His “Requiem for the People” as he describes it, is scored for soprano and baritone soloists, mixed chorus and chamber orchestra, with eight of its ten movements headed by personal dedications, the “Sanctus” notably to John Tavener. The work’s avoidance of the “Dies Irae” and the inclusion of Psalm 23 as well as a quietly jubilant “Alleluia” points to the promise of eternal life and its consoling texts parallel Requiems by certain English composers. For many enterprising choirs and conductors it will be a welcome addition to the sacred canon, but despite a very persuasive performance, particularly from Rachel Nicholls in “Pie Jesu”, the work seemed overly long at 55 minutes. 

More favourably proportioned was the concert’s opening work – John McCabe’s Concertante Variations on a Theme of Nicholas Maw – a fantasia-like piece from 1970 and a fine example of English string writing in the tradition of Berkeley, Bridge and Britten. Its colourful palette of string techniques and alternating fast/slow sections were efficiently dispatched by 11 players, and while its few animated passages could have been more assertive, its gentle meanderings were carefully shaped.

Next came Stephen McNeff’s Four Songs for the Virgin of Guadaloupe – a 2005 score, refashioned from an earlier stage work Matins for the Virgin of Guadaloupe. Now with the full complement of string players, harp, percussion and soprano soloist Rachel Nicholls, Stephen McNeff’s political and religious preoccupations were colourfully realised in four vividly contrasting sections. Taking devotional texts from the Bible, St Ambrose and Italian-born musician Ignacio Jerusalem, this four-part mini-drama refers to the plight of Mexican Zapatista women and their struggle for emancipation. Rachel Nicholls, an established Wagnerian soprano, delivered her demanding lines with conviction and McNeff’s richly varied accompaniment revealed his experience in writing works for the stage.

The work that produced the most memorable emotional impact was the unscheduled addition of Peter Sculthorpe’s Salve Regina – performed in tribute to this recently deceased Australian composer and friend of the festival. Over a spare string accompaniment Rachel Nicholls spun her plainchant-like lines with a beauty of tone that reduced the near-capacity audience to a mesmerised silence.