30 AUGUST 2003, Page 38

Festival delights

Robin Holloway

Dresteigne, tiny capital of a tiny county,

Radnorshire, long since rationalised into limbo, retains its ancient prettiness intact. And it has built up unobtrusively over the last 20 years a music festival whose apparent modesty belies its state of health and strength, from which larger capitals could relearn a few things they're in danger of forgetting.

It centres on St Andrew's church, which by some happy freak of architecture integrates incompatible acoustics, resonance, good for singing, with clarity, good for piano-based chamber music. Sightlines are good, seats comfortable (no need to pull up hassocks to mitigate penitential pews); there's a sense of agreeable sociability, yet serious devotion to the music is paramount.

I don't know how the artistic director George Vass does it; he's managed to persuade without browbeating his border country constituency into a living refutation of the prevalent feeling that music by living composers is repellent and best handled by passing by on the other side. Attendance is high, often capacity, for repertoire that by any standards is recherché: not for the highmodern complexity still standard in the great cities of Europe, as for what it's tempting to call the opposite — idioms that the soi-disant sophisticated establishment has tended to repress or suppress. It still flourishes, however, good bad indifferent like any other idiom at any other epoch: there's manifold sap in the old boughs, with foliage, flowers, fruit to prove it.

I'm Presteigne's Composer-inResidence for this its 21st festival. My actual residence is delightful — behind a plain white exterior set back from the main street lies a palimpsest of rooms from the last four centuries, which from the upper storeys commands a view of roofs, gardens, a sweet silly Victorian campanile with clock, bells, weather vane (and the green hills beyond). Set down at this central point on first arrival by taxi from the nearest station ('Oh, it's all money money money these days. That'll be £20, dear'), I wandered bemused past the white house hoping it might be right but doubting it, to end up at a first sight of St Andrew's — first hearing too, for from its open porch poured the unmistakable sound of high horns in rut, baying out the climax of one of my pieces. The band was on the verge of a tea break. Having introduced myself, I was redirected, admitted to the house I'd desired en passant, hastily dumped the bags, splashed the face, downed a pint of Welsh bitter at the pub opposite, and was back at the church on time for the rehearsal's resumption.

This scurried glimpse had sufficed for me to fall in love with the house's interior: the hallway with its glowing carpet against dark polished wood, the window at its end with shining garden beyond. framed by an ebony elephant and a black vulcanised Venus de Milo, confronting an elegant

flight of stairs. Later unhurried acquaintance familiarised me with with the house's foliage, flowers and fruits too, most notably luscious mulberries from the still fecund stumps left when a mature tree keeled over some years since. Nor is the generous fruit confined to its owner, for the laden branches spill out over the street, pluckable by all who pass by. I've just had some with my breakfast before retiring upstairs to scribble this diary, accompanied by the continuous sound of another guest downstairs, practising the solo violin part of my romanza for the final concert tomorrow, and the intermittent chimes from the Victorian campanile. A pasha could only ask for one thing more!

But away from such indulgences. We're here in this beautiful countryside for serious business. The Saturday and Sunday each contained four events in as many venues (often quite far apart) — not to mention the pleasures of intervening rehearsals and sociabilities. Highlights have included the Sunday morning Festival Service, mingling favourable hymns for a good old communal bawl, a well-turned sermon working in many biblical references, Old and New, to music (some surprising, even disconcerting), plus by two living composers (both present) and a motet and mass by past masters — Haydn's mini setting of the Ordinary, which achieves a breadth out of all proportion to its brevity, Mozart's sublime Ave verum corpus; all the more moving, all this, for being inextricably part of a religious rite.

The evening before, the same singers, in the same church, had delighted us with their sweet-toned rendition of another Viennese missa brevis, by the 17-year-old Schubert, followed by a lovely new setting of Ave Mans stella, tender in unaffected simplicity, by Cecilia McDowall. A solo cello recital by Alice Neary nearly set the little church of Kinnerton afire (fortunately a brief rain shower alleviated the risk). The Raphael ensemble have set the wild echoes flying in Brahms's 2nd string sextet, Bruckner's quintet, Verklarte Nacht, and sextets by your columnist and the festival's prime mover in early days, Adrian Williams. Katharine Gowers nearly set another church ablaze with her ardent advocacy of an impressive violin sonata by James Brown (also present). When she and Ms Neary combined with another marvellous girl (the pianist Gretel Dowdeswell) for the Brahms C-major piano trio, the entire audience — or does one say congregation? — were blown away. Later today (the bank holiday) I'll be hearing another fellow guest over the morning mulberries, the radiant-voiced Gillian Keith, give the first performance of no fewer than ten new songs in a garland to celebrate the 21st birthday — all the composers will be there, and the listeners will want and welcome what they have done, and come back next year for more. Comparisons are odious: but. . .