Traveller tales find a home at Highgate International Chamber Music Festival

PUBLISHED: 16:00 27 November 2015 | UPDATED: 17:33 27 November 2015

The founders of the Highgate International Chamber Music Festival

The founders of the Highgate International Chamber Music Festival

Archant

The celebrated festival, which is run by three local musicians, is returning for a fourth time, writes Michael White.

Four years ago, three internationally active but locally-based musicians – pianist Irina Botan, cellist Ashok Klouda and violinist Natalie Klouda – decided to give themselves a break from hanging around airports for delayed planes and organise a festival on their doorstep.

For one week in late autumn the concerts would come to them, rather than the other way round. And so, the Highgate International Chamber Music Festival was born – a portentous title to which it lives up again this year.

With five concerts running from this weekend to the next, it draws performers from Romania, Slovenia, Holland and the UK, who become a pool of players mixed and matched into quintets, quartets and trios as the repertoire requires.

Some are big names like Raphael Wallfisch, Julian Bliss, Morgan Szymanski and Jack Liebeck; others less well-known but equally big talents.

The theme for this year’s programme is “The Traveller’s Tale” – which doesn’t mean the performers will be reminiscing about arguments with Easyjet over the carriage of their instruments, but that most of the music was either written in or inspired by journeys.

As Ashok Klouda explains, “we’ve got a trio that Haydn composed on one of his trips to London, a Boccherini guitar quintet that he wrote while staying in Madrid, music by Malcolm Arnold that was written for Yehudi Menuhin to tour in America…and several pieces for accordion, which is traditionally associated with travelling people”.

But the core itinerant statement in the festival is a performance on Monday 30th of Schubert’s great song cycle – arguably the greatest cycle in the history of music – “Winterreise”. Winter Journey.

Sung by the eminent young tenor Marcus Farnsworth with the star accompanist James Baillieu at the piano (fresh from running his own concert series at the Wigmore), “Winterreise” is a classic narrative of Austro-German melancholy. A rejected lover leaves behind all that he’s known and trudges out into the icy darkness of a winter landscape to what might be death or might be something worse than death: a hopeless, lingering despair that Schubert’s music captures with unnerving bleakness.

When he played the cycle to his friends in 1827, they were shocked: they’d never heard so dark a score. And they presumably appreciated the extent to which it was self-referential. Schubert had been ill with syphilis. There was effectively no cure. He knew that he would either die or lose his mind. If you’re intrigued to know more, the recital is preceded by a talk – given by me, so don’t hold back. It starts at 7.30 at St Anne’s on Highgate West Hill.

As for the rest of the Festival, it lives up to its own theme by travelling between St Anne’s, St Michael’s Highgate, and St Mary’s Brookfield: all of them churches with a good acoustic and sightlines.

Details at chambermusicfestival.co.uk . Students get in for £5. And under 16s can get in free.

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