A fascinating amalgam of old and new at these famed summer concerts, including a collaboration inspired by Schoenberg’s wife
Founded during the burst of cultural optimism that followed the end of the second world war and saw the launch of so many British music festivals, the Dartington Summer School has continued more or less intact until the present day. Its emphasis may have tilted this way and that as artistic directors have come and gone, but the basic ethos of bringing together top-quality performers and composers to work with students and amateur musicians in concerts and classes in a relaxed, informal atmosphere has remained.
Dartington’s current artistic director is Sara Mohr-Pietsch, whose tenure began two years ago. Covid forced the cancellation of her first summer school in 2020, and also severely compromised plans for 2021, but this year it has all been able to run as she envisaged, with a different emphasis in each of its four weeks. Contemporary music was very much to the fore in the final week, with the soprano Juliet Fraser, pianist Rolf Hind, the Montreal-based Quatuor Bozzini and the composer Christopher Fox all in residence to work with young composers and performers, and to give public concerts.
Hind’s solo recital began with his own Bhutani, a set of eight studies composed during lockdown in 2020. Each carries the Sanskrit name of an animal – bird, wolf, fish, bee, and so on – and the piano writing not only exploits different aspects of technique, but also different timbral effects that Hind drew from his piano with the help of electronics; they are mostly pithy, immediate pieces, just a couple are a little overlong. He followed his pieces with Claude Vivier’s Shiraz, with its echoes of Stockhausen and Messiaen, and finally some genuine Messiaen, Le Loriot (The Golden Oriole) from Catalogue d’Oiseaux, both played with tremendous intensity and dash.
Fraser and the Bozzinis gave two concerts together, fascinating, carefully programmed amalgams of old and new. In the first, two works by Cassandra Miller were interleaved with well-known quartet movements: her brief, gentle Leaving was paired with the variations from Schubert’s Death and the Maiden Quartet, while the haunting Thanksong, receiving its first live performance, followed the Heiliger Dankgesang from Beethoven’s A minor Quartet Op 132, taking up the opening phrases of Beethoven’s hymn to create four independent string parts, together with a vocal line that Fraser threaded delicately between the repeating phrases.
The starting point for their second collaboration was Schoenberg’s second string quartet, for which Fox had composed a companion piece, The Air Is Just Desire. The quartet is famous as the work in which Schoenberg abandoned tonality for the first time, setting poems by Stefan George in the final two movements, and it’s often thought that the trajectory of the quartet reflected the turmoil in Schoenberg’s life at that time, when his first wife Mathilde left him for the portrait painter Richard Gerstl.
With a text by Kate Wakeling, Fox’s work reflects on the breakup from Mathilde’s point of view, opening with descriptions of Gerstl’s paintings of the Schoenberg family, incorporating extracts from Mathilde’s letters to her husband, and finally echoing phrases from the George poems used in Schoenberg’s quartet. Fraser speaks the texts at first, only gradually introducing sung phrases as the piece gathers in intensity. Her lines become more expressive and the supporting string writing more febrile, until by the end she soars defiantly; it’s direct, and powerfully moving.