This second concert of the Clifton International Festival of Music was a sparkling gem amongst concrete presenting no less than three world premières. The evening took place in the dramatic and industrial Clifton Cathedral, beautiful in its simplicity. The plain walls accentuated shafts of daylight descending from the ceiling, enhancing the beautiful delicacies of Bach and beyond.

William Whitehead © J.M. Ainsley
William Whitehead
© J.M. Ainsley

Behind the scenes of every good performance lies a great concept. On the festival’s theme of ‘Contrast and Collaboration’, the programme consisted of a selection of Bach’s Orgelbüchlein Preludes for organ, partially transcribed by Fred Thomas of the Fred Thomas Trio, who performed the preludes in conversation with the organ. Each trio transcription was treated separately - some were more melodic, where others were more chordal in nature. Thomas’ treatment of the Baroque score was modern but respectful of Bach’s traditional harmonies. The pieces were light and full of colour and creativity making full use of the dynamic combination of violin, cello and piano. The Bechstein piano used by Fred Thomas for the concert was mellow in sound, melting with the rich qualities of the violin and cello. Some of my favourites of his transcriptions used the cello as the focal point with a deep melody and continual bassline moving in higher octaves on the violin and piano.

The only piece of the programme that stood as the odd one out was Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in D major, BWV532, and the final piece of the evening. Although the fugue had been transcribed for organ from violin solo, it felt too similar to the other Orgelbüchlein pieces in the second half. After all, the pieces had been a variation along the same theme, a few more new compositions would have been better suited to contrast and round off the concert. It is however, a very small criticism on a wonderful event.

The concert opened with a violin solo version of Sonata I for Violin Solo, BWV 1001 from Aisha Orazbayeva on the balcony. We were only able to see the tip of her violin and her trademark hair, but the sound was mesmerizing. She played steadily, with more of a romantic edge than the rigorously technical baroque style of Bach. Her phrasing and dynamics were creative and suited the piece. This short performance fueled the start of a tennis match between organ and trio through nine preludes.  It was interesting to hear the contrast between the trio and organ, though it would have been nice to indulge in hearing the comparisons between an organ version and trio version of each prelude to truly appreciate the difference in style.

At the central point of the concert, Bach’s traditional harmony was contrasted with three world premières from three British composers, each in a very different style. Organist William Whitehead is currently curating an international project to ‘complete’ the Orgelbüchlein with new compositions. The three composers were briefed to write their own Orgelbüchlein Prelude for Organ as Bach had curiously left the Orgelbüchlein only a quarter complete. The idea is to give each composer a given but missing chorale melody as the basis of a new prelude to fill in the unfinished gaps. Whitehead’s performance on the Cathedral’s structural organ appeared effortless despite the complexities of all of the different voices he had to play. There were only minor halts between the new compositions to find all the correct stops, but when he was actually performing, his renditions were flawless and correct to fit the period, both modern and Baroque.

The first commission, Es woll uns Gott gnädig sein, written by Gareth Moorcroft, was pointillist in nature and experimental in comparison to the following work by David Matthews, Kommt her zu mir spricht Gottes Sohn, which was in a more traditional style using canonic themes. The final première by David Bednall, Ich dank’ dir schon durch deinen Sohn, shone out from the other two works. It comprised of driving rhythms and a positively symphonic sound with a powerfully loud start. It was nice to see the composers present at the concert who all received applause from the audience. Complete with interval drinks on the terrace in the sun, this truly was an idyllic, intimate and memorable performance with a well thought out concept.