The classification of composers into those who write tonal music and those who inhabit the harder-edged shores of serialism and atonality raised its head once again at the first of the three concerts given by the Festival Chamber Orchestra at this year’s Presteigne Festival. Artistic Director George Vass conducted a typically adventurous programme in which classics by Lennox Berkeley and Stravinsky rubbed shoulders with new works by David Matthews, Roxanna Panufnik and Joseph Phibbs. Chairing a pre-concert discussion, composer Michael Berkeley quizzed David Matthews and Joseph Phibbs about the softer-grained tonal focus of their music. Matthews (whose 70th birthday is being handsomely celebrated at this year’s festival) comes from a generation who grew up under the shadow of Boulez’s famous statement, “anyone who has not felt the necessity of serialism is useless”. Responding to Berkeley’s question, he admitted that in the 1960s he did not feel he could write the kind of music he wished to. Phibbs, now in his late 30s, has by comparison grown up in a more pluralistic era and admitted to a love of the harmonic style of Britten and his contemporaries.

David Matthews © Maurice Foxall
David Matthews
© Maurice Foxall

Within half an hour of the talk the music was able to speak for itself. Matthews’ new Double Concerto for violin, viola and string orchestra was receiving its second performance by the two soloists for whom it was written, Sara Trickey and Sarah-Jane Bradley. Its free-flowing lines and exceptionally handsome slow movement unashamedly have, as Matthews admitted in his pre-concert talk, a particular strain of English lyricism. Forty years ago it might have seemed out of place, but in our more accepting, pluralistic age it felt entirely natural and unforced. The central slow movement was influenced by Matthews’ journeys to Kent and Sussex to hear nightingales and Sara Trickey and Sarah-Jane Bradley’s honeyed and burnished solos brought together traditions as far apart as Vaughan Williams’ Lark and Messiaen filtered through Matthews’ own individual voice.

Joseph Phibbs’ Clarinet Concerto had a strongly focused harmonic language and played bold tricks with the proportions of its movements: the first movement created the impression of a long-breathed timeframe, before cutting it off almost brutally. A long, intense, animated second movement had both players and listeners on the edge of their seats and was followed by a brief, epigrammatic final slow movement. After the first two movements, in which the admirable Catriona Scott fearlessly negotiated the upper registers of the clarinet, she was finally allowed to sink into its chalumeau register.

Why isn’t Lennox Berkeley’s superb Serenade more often played? Written in 1939, its elegant understated lyricism may have been overshadowed by Britten’s sparkling Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge and Tippett’s athletic Double Concerto, but it could not have found a more ardent advocate than this beautifully shaped performance by the young festival strings under George Vass. In an evening of music of such gentleness, Stravinsky’s 1946 Concerto in D, which usually seems rather lightweight, felt rather hard-edged and fractured.