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This year’s Cheltenham Music Festival, which opened on Friday, has a Scottish theme running through it, featuring music on Scottish subjects by composers such as Schumann and Mendelssohn and introducing new music by living composers from north of the border. To bolster their number, London-born Sally Beamish, who moved to Scotland in 1989, has been added to the list as the festival’s featured composer. Speaking on the opening night, she reminisced wryly that the first work of hers to be performed at Cheltenham had lasted all of one minute – so the invitation to offer something rather longer for the 2006 festival must have been welcome.
A concerto for classical accordion and orchestra may not seem an obviously Scottish choice, but that would be to underestimate the composer’s ingenuity. Beamish has called her concerto “The Singing” and the title refers to the mournful tone of Gaelic songs and psalms that pervades its atmosphere. Then there is the sound of the accordion itself, an instrument that is not so far from the bagpipes. The concerto starts with its toneless wheezing as it fills its lungs, followed by an eerie, high voice when it starts to sing its song, reflecting on the hardships of the Highland clearances at the end of the 18th century. James Crabbe, the soloist, sounded expert in all the demands the concerto placed on him. Although the music takes some time to impose its personality, it pulls the various threads together in a well-contrasted set of variations at the end.
The festival’s Scottish journey had started out in the Hebrides with Mendelssohn’s “Fingal’s Cave” Overture. Then conductor Martyn Brabbins (Cheltenham’s artistic director) and the Hallé Orchestra crossed to the other side of Europe for Mahler’s Symphony No.4, rather overindulging its Viennese schmaltz on the way. Perhaps their hearts were still in the land of lochs and glens. ★★★☆☆
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Festival continues until July 15