Holst’s folky side is laid bare at Cheltenham, plus the best of July’s classical concerts

He allowed the music to breathe: conductor Andrew Manze
He allowed the music to breathe: conductor Andrew Manze - Chris Christodoulou

Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, Cheltenham Music Festival ★★★☆☆

The Cheltenham Music Festival may be somewhat diminished since its glory days in the last millennium but it still offers a wonderful programme of brilliant young performers and intriguing premieres. For the 2024 edition, the focus has been on local boy Gustav Holst, known to millions through his orchestral suite The Planets (first performed in 1918), but precious little else. That’s a sad omission as Holst was a fascinating figure, who learned Sanskrit while working as a jobbing trombonist and music teacher, and was influenced by Japanese and Indian music.

This year marks the 150th anniversary of Holst’s birth, so this was surely the moment for the Festival to reveal that “there’s more to Holst than The Planets”—which they did, sort of, but in a disappointingly timid way. They offered none of the Indian-inspired works, or his strange orchestral piece Egdon Heath (1928), which exceeds The Planets in harmonic daring. Still, they did feature the quietly ecstatic Hymn of Jesus, and on the last day the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra took a deep dive into the English folk music of this many-sided composer.

If you’re allergic to self-consciously rumbustious evocations of “footing it merrily upon the village green” then the prospect of three folk-influenced pieces by Holst in succession would be unappealing. But these wonderful performances, vigorous without being yokelish and delicate without being precious, might have won you over. Holst’s familiar St Paul’s Suite may have been written for the young players of St Paul’s School for Girls but it requires a needle-point delicacy in the diaphanous second movement, and a seraphic purity of tone from the orchestral leader in the surprisingly sinuous, almost Arabic-sounding third movement, which they certainly received.

Throughout, conductor Andrew Manze showed a keen awareness of the harmonic and rhythmic surprises under the music’s naive surface, and made sure we noticed them, too. The rarely-heard A Fugal Concerto (1923) was an intriguing hybrid, as if the spirit of Bach had descended on that village green, and the first of the Two Songs harked back to a different sort of Englishness, more courtly than folk-like. The evening’s most emotive moment came in the slow movement of Vaughan Williams’s English Folksong Suite, where the orchestra’s principal oboist unfurled the melody My Bonny Boy with lovely aching nostalgia.

It would have been intriguing, after that folk-drenched first half of the concert, to see how British composers have projected the folk influence onto a bigger symphonic canvas. But one could hardly complain when the RLPO offered Mozart’s radiant Jupiter symphony instead. Andrew Manze is a hugely experienced conductor of Mozart, and feels no need to make his mark with ear-seizing oddities of tempo and phrasing. He allowed the music to breathe naturally, making sure there was plenty of air and light in those pert, balanced phrases, and guiding our ears to the harmonic surprises with the tiniest pulling-back, to set them in relief. The joyous apotheosis of the final movement wasn’t always perfectly nimble-fingered, but it certainly blazed with glory. IH

No further performances

Classical Pride, Barbican ★★★★☆

Classical Pride 2024, at the Barbican
Classical Pride 2024, at the Barbican - Matthew Johnson

A zippy opener, new commission, compact concerto, contemporary work and short symphony with chorus – at first glance, this could have been be any other mixtape-style Barbican concert. But there were rainbow lights winking around the stage and the podium was wrapped in the LGBTQ+ flag. The sartorial choices were brighter, sparklier. I smoothed my own sequinned combat trousers and caught the eye of another person wearing the same.

This was Classical Pride, the second instalment of Oliver Zeffman’s cleverly conceived celebration. Last year’s concert, also at the Barbican, with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra was – surprisingly – the first event of its kind in Europe. Sunday night’s performance was the culmination of an expanded five-day series, featuring musicians from UK conservatoires, community choirs and another first: Classical Drag.

Copland’s rousing Fanfare for the Common Man heralded the arrival of compère Nick Grimshaw. Classic FM’s idiosyncratic gala concerts and uneven Proms broadcasts have long shown how difficult it is to provide snappy context for complex music but Grimshaw’s informality generally worked well, guiding newcomers and pinpointing the programme.

As music organisations struggle against a tide of funding cuts at national (for example English National Opera) and local (CBSO) level, Zeffman’s ability to secure growing support is all the more impressive. It has enabled several Classical Pride commissions from major composers, including Good Morning, Beauty by Jake Heggie, which received its premiere here. Pumeza Matshikiza’s creamy soprano whipped up the joyous love song, with Bernsteinian flourishes from the orchestral accompaniment (Barbican house band the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Zeffman).

Having performed at last year’s event (with his partner Samson Tsoy), Pavel Kolesnikov returned as the soloist in Saint-Saëns’s second piano concerto. The virtuosic, showstopping opening is tempered by the dreamy second theme and a humorous, scurrying finale. Kolesnikov proved a balletic pianist – in Tchaikovsky’s Valse Sentimentale, his arms danced into the space above the keyboard, never to the detriment of his technique.

Some might attribute this to “queering the performance”, an idea that encourages authenticity in musical expression. Composer Julius Eastman (1940-1990) once summed up that spirit when he told an interviewer: “What I am trying to achieve is to be what I am to the fullest – black to the fullest, a musician to the fullest, a homosexual to the fullest.” While we didn’t have any Eastman in the main hall – Jessie Montgomery’s arrangement of Eastman’s Gay Guerilla was performed in the foyer prior the concert proper – Cassandra Miller’s Round hinted at his radical musical minimalism, with trumpets positioned up in the balcony and an urgent, repeated motif. Sounds swirled, programme pages turned.

Russell Thomas – in town to sing Mario Cavaradossi in Tosca at the Royal Opera House – was joined by the LGBTQ+ Community Choir for Szymanowski’s dramatic Symphony No 3 Song of the Night, an ecstatic work that is texturally dense – Thomas’s tenor rather got lost in the weave. The counterpoint to this uplifting evening was the reminder that Pride is a protest movement, because rights are still not universal. To that end, all proceeds from Classical Pride are donated to Rainbow Road, Amplifund and the Terrence Higgins Trust. CJ

No further performances

Sound Within Sound, Southbank Centre ★★★★★

The Southbank's festival explores the concept of Sound Within Sound
The Southbank's festival explores the concept of Sound Within Sound - Getty

A sound within a sound – it’s a strange idea. How can one sound contain another? As the first concert in Sound Within Sound – the Southbank’s festival of experimental music from around the world – unfolded, it became clear. It means sounds of bewitching unfamiliarity: the booming and gurgling and hissing of water and insects and bells, intricate and many-layered, like one shape unfolding to reveal another. Sounds which – after a moment of resistance – you sink into pleasurably, with a mysterious sense of connecting with something age-old.

This was the sound of Jitterbug by New Zealander Annea Lockwood, who back in the heady late 1960s became briefly notorious for recording the sound of burning pianos. “Not very green!” she confessed in her post-concert chat with the festival’s curator Kate Molleson, though she has more than made up for it since by settling in Montana and turning to nature for inspiration. Lockwood is one of many “outsider modernists” who were just as bold in their reinventions of music as any of the lustrous names of the West who dominate the official histories. Ten of them, including an Ethiopian nun who went to a Swiss finishing school and a Brazilian composer who created an entire menagerie of new instruments, are revealed in Molleson’s 2022 book (which gave the festival its name) – at the Southbank, the music of all of them is being heard, some of it for the first time in the UK.

Many of the mysterious sound-within-sounds of Lockwood’s music turned out to be field recordings of rivers and insects, subtly altered and diffused by the Queen Elizabeth Hall’s superb sound-diffusion system. Layered above them were plaintive notes and almost-mute sighings and scratchings from violinist Angharad Davies and cellist Anton Lukoszevieze. They played these tiny sounds with the same delicate care as a pianist would place a note in a Mozart sonata, with expressive results that were just as potent – but in a different way. A Mozart sonata arouses memories of all the other sonatas one has ever heard. Here, the cello and violin keenings seemed new-minted and yet old, like a voice of nature.

After that, it was a shock to be plunged into the jangling, hard-edged, clockwork world of Music for 5 Pianos by Cuban composer José Maceda. Maceda was inspired by folk music from across the world, not just his native land, but he was also a dreamer of new musical worlds as bold as any in the West. This piece, played by superb precision and sensitivity by five pianists of the group Apartment House conducted by Jack Sheen, revealed both sides of this extraordinary man.

The rhapsodic flurries tossed from one piano to another sounded like a village fiesta; the bell-like chords and interlocking patterns seemed to point to the stars. It was miles from Lockwood’s nature mysticism, but the grandeur and innocent freshness were the same. In all, it was a wonderful beginning to a festival that harked back to the days when the Southbank was habitually bold. Let’s hope it’s a sign of things to come. IH

Festival continues until July 7. Tickets: 020 3879 9555; southbankcentre.co.uk