The last few days have been spent pottering around north Wales and Shropshire on a few days rest and relaxation away from the terrors of local government. For the musical amongst you, it also included a sojourn in Bridgnorth at a performance of Haydn’s The Creation (more anon…).
With glorious weather, this truly was a wonderful few days. We stayed at Harlech and drove around the area: Portmeirion, Betys-y-Coed, Snowdon, Valle Crucis abbey. In typically British style, the railway up Snowdon only went three-quarters of the way up because (and I quote the woman behind the counter) “the new visitor’s centre has been delayed for a month”. The guide said ‘frequent intervals’, we arrived and next train was over an hour hence – oh well, Snowdon was nice to look at and drive around, who needs to go up it?!
Then to Shropshire: a day spent trundling through Ironbridge, Ludlow and thence to Bridgnorth. All quite lovely. We stayed with friends in Bridgnorth and I was left with that feeling (again) of why do I bother putting up with the rubbish quality of life that London offers?
The Haydn concert was in St Leonard’s church in the main town centre. A lovely space, if a bit Victorian bland-gothic. Bloody uncomfortable as well, despite taking along luxurious John Lewis cushions on which to sit, courtesy of our hostess. The English Haydn Festival takes place in Bridgnorth each year – we spent ages trying to fathom the connection between Haydn and the town, and it eventually turned out that there isn’t one. The founder of the festival, John Ried (who died last year), seemingly felt that the absence of an English Haydn Festival was remiss (and who could argue) and that Bridgnorth was the place that he designated to become the ‘Salzburg of Shropshire’ (doesn’t every English county have a Salzburg?!) A fine endeavour and an enjoyable evening.
The English Haydn Orchestra (I am assuming a festival-specific creation made up of players either freelance or ordinarily of other, more ‘permanent’ orchestras) played very well, incisively, although with the slightly off intonation that, on occasion, comes with the territory of a period band. The best bits were undoubtedly the orchestral and choral moments. The chorus (the Birmingham Festival Chorus) were every bit a match for the orchestra, with finesse and lustiness in equal measure when they were demanded. The penultimate choral number in particular was a marvel of restraint being slowly unleashed as it escalates to full-on awe-inspiring power.
I call it the ‘penultimate choral number’ because the programme was useless in its outline of such a programmatic piece as the Creation. No information about the numbers at all! In the words of Michael Flanders, ‘a dead waste of a shilling…’
The soloists – Catherine Bott (sop), Andrew Slater (bass) and Lynton Atkinson (tenor) – probably didn’t benefit from the harsh acoustic of the church, but only Slater really seemed to make his presence felt. Bott started quite gently with a voice that seemed to be quite light and ‘breathy’, but gained some power in the second half, culminating in a wonderful duet with Slater as the young lovers. I was looking forward to hearing Bott (other than on the radio, obviously) and initial disappointment was, ultimately, banished as the evening drew to its close. Atkinson never seemed to quite hit his stride in the context and he seemed to ‘hoot’ occasionally when reaching for high notes. Still the whole thing was a very worthwhile endeavour and throughout there were flashes of that Haydn touch, mostly emerging from the orchestra: the little figures that emerge in the bass lines of the orchestra in response to a word, the changes of mood coupled to the restless onward energy. Patrick Larley as conductor kept things well-paced and buoyant.
I would be tempted to look out for the English Haydn Festival in the future. A lovely setting for a festival, Bridgnorth has a minor jewel here and it was particularly heartwarming to see the active sponsorship of Bridgnorth Town Council and the now-defunct Bridgnorth District Council. As an employee of an authority that seems to glorify the subsidised provision of low culture amongst its residents (who seem not to ask for anything more), I couldn’t help thinking that this was real civic leadership. Sorry if that sounds reactionary, but good on you Bridgnorth!