Frederick Delius - British heart and soul
Edinburgh International Festival (August 9-September 2)
Frederick Delius - Delius: A Mass of Life (Naxos)
Benjamin Britten - Britten: Songs and Proverbs of William Blake (Naxos)
Billy Budd - ENO, London Coliseum (June 18-July 8)
Gregynog Festival (June 15-July 1)
"Positive, uplifting, joyful,” intoned Jonathan Mills, director of the Edinburgh International Festival, while assorted journalists slurped morning coffee around a boardroom table. “Instead of an outright theme this year, we want to capture the true spirit of a grand summer festival.”
Mills unveiled the 2012 EIF programme to squeals of glee from the dance critics and approving nods from the thespos; in those fields, he’s lined up a daring and high-calibre few weeks. But the music contingent were scratching our heads. Classically speaking, the programme is less than scintillating, with a few exceptions. Take, for example, the opening concert.
Granted, I’m way out of fashion here. Frederick Delius skirted a brand of lush English lyricism that for many listeners triggers knee-jerk nausea. But there’s far more to his music than sickly bucolic idyll. The gargantuan Mass of Life folds Nietzsche’s Also sprach Zarathustra into swathes of bold orchestral texture – it’s the crowning achievement of a heart-on-sleeve dreamer, a thinker, a man who climbed mountains.
It’s a thundering expression of wide horizons, real and aspiring. It’s also a fantastic embodiment of those ‘uplifting’ festival ideals. Lest we forget that the Olympics are nigh upon us, Mills’ choice of opener is cannily timed.
Still not convinced? Try a superb new recording from the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, Bach Choir, conductor David Hill and soloists including Alan Opie and Catherine Wyn-Rogers. The singing is magisterial, the orchestral playing supple and committed.
Delius would have been 150 this year and in London the BBC Proms doff their caps from the first night to the last. If ever we’re to reassess our image of this most heartfelt of British composers, the time is now.
No such reassessment needed for Benjamin Britten, of course, but a beautiful new disc that includes the Songs and Proverbs of William Blake from baritone Roderick Williams and pianist Ian Burnside still goes down a treat. Williams sings with a gentle warmth and a poet’s affection for the text.
Meanwhile, English National Opera, quite possibly the best Britten house in the business, opens a new production of Billy Budd this month. It’s in the hands of the same creative team, conductor Edward Gardner and director David Alden, that in 2009 produced one of the most chilling and heartrending productions of Peter Grimes I’ve seen – so high hopes for Britten’s moral tale.
And as the great and good of British classical music go rural for the summer season, the best-kept secret of the country-house festival circuit remains tucked away in the rolling Welsh borderlands.
The Gregynog Festival prides itself on being the oldest festival in Wales: it was founded in 1933 by sisters Margaret and Gwendoline Davies, who channelled the family’s coal money into arts philanthropy. They set up choirs for their estate workers and their art collection now hangs in the National Museum of Wales.
This year’s Venetian theme marks a century since they started buying up portraits of the city by the likes of Monet, Boudin, and Sickert; guests include the harpsichordist Ottavio Dantone, viol player Jordi Savall and guitarist Xuefei Yang.