FBorn out of the burst of cultural optimism that followed the end of World War II and saw the launch of so many UK music festivals, the Dartington Summer School has continued more or less intact to the present day. Its focus may have shifted this way and that as artistic directors have come and gone, but the basic ethos of bringing together high quality performers and composers to work with students and amateur musicians at concerts and lessons in a relaxed and informal atmosphere remained.
Dartington’s current artistic director is Sara Mohr-Pietsch, whose mandate began two years ago. Covid forced the cancellation of her first summer school in 2020 and also severely jeopardized plans for 2021, but this year everything was able to go as she envisioned, with a different focus in each of her four weeks . Contemporary music was very present last week, with the soprano Juliet Fraserpianist Rolf Hindthe Montreal company Bozzini Quartet and the composer Christopher Renard 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 bears the Sanskrit name of an animal – bird, wolf, fish, bee, etc. – and the piano writing not only exploits different aspects of technique, but also different timbre effects that Hind has drawn from his piano using electronics; they are mostly concise and immediate pieces, just a few are a bit too long. He followed his plays with by Claude Vivier Shiraz, with its echoes of Stockhausen and Messiaenand finally genuine Messiaens, Le Loriot (L’Oriole d’or) from the Catalog d’Oiseaux, both played with tremendous intensity and passion.
Fraser and the Bozzinis performed two concerts together, fascinating and carefully programmed amalgamations of old and new. In the first, two works by Cassandra Miller were intertwined with well-known quartet movements: his short, sweet Leaving was paired with variations of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden Quartet, while the haunting Thanksong, receiving its first live performance, followed the Quartet’s Heiliger Dankgesang in Beethoven’s Op 132 minor, taking the opening phrases of Beethoven’s hymn to create four independent string parts, along with a vocal line that Fraser delicately strung between the repeated phrases.
The starting point for their second collaboration was Schoenberg’s second string quartet, for which Fox had composed a backing piece, The Air Is Just Desire. The quartet is famous as the work in which Schoenberg first abandoned tonality, setting poems by Stefan George to music in the last two movements, and the quartet’s trajectory is often thought to have reflected the bustle of life of Schoenberg at this time, when his his first wife Mathilde left him for the portraitist Richard Gerstl.
With text by Kate Wakeling, Fox’s work reflects on the break from Mathilde’s perspective, opening with descriptions of Gerstl’s paintings of the Schoenberg family, incorporating excerpts from Mathilde’s letters to her husband, and finally echoing phrases from George’s poems used in Schoenberg. quartet. Fraser speaks the lyrics first, only gradually introducing sung phrases as the piece builds in intensity. Its lines become more expressive and the writing of the supporting strings more feverish, until at the end it rises defiantly; it is direct and powerfully moving.