What were the highlights of this year’s Hampstead Arts Festival?

Amida Quartet play St John's Downshire Hill

Amida Quartet play St John's Downshire Hill - Credit: Archant

Michael sums up the best moments of this year,including a challenging concert by Ian Bostridge, Jewish folk tunes inspired by the Warsaw Ghetto and an explosive string quartet.

This year’s Hampstead Arts Festival closed with an elite, professional ‘Messiah’ in Hampstead Parish Church.

And three years in it’s clear the festival has now made its mark - not only in North London but on the British arts scene as a whole.

This season it flew in from Europe several leading artists who, despite success with international broadcasts and recordings, hadn’t so far given a recital in London. It gave premieres of new works, and offered home-grown stars like tenor Ian Bostridge singing Schumann with the pianist Julius Drake.

Bostridge and Drake were billed with no exaggeration as “one of the great lieder duos of our time”, and they didn’t disappoint – although a late change to the song order left some of the audience stuggling to keep up, and it did occasionally seem as though Bostridge wasn’t on his best form. Twice he stopped in mid-song (which I’ve never heard him do before), and his already thin tone faltered at the far ends of his range.

But then, most Bostridge concerts come with challenges to the received idea of vocal beauty. They’re more focused on emotional intensity, living the stories that they tell in song. And the intensity on this occasion was unsparing, harrowing, disturbing – as great art can be – but an experience not to miss.

More conventionally enjoyable was a concert of Sir Malcolm Arnold’s buoyant, brilliant, unequivocally British chamber music from the 1950s/60s – played (such is the boundaries-free world of music) by Japanese pianist Reiko Fujisawa and an ad hoc ensemble of leading wind-players from the main London orchestras.

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Personally I don’t think Arnold’s genius lies in chamber repertoire: it’s as a symphonist and film composer that he flourished. But the pieces here were fun, engaging, clever, with an easy mastery of technique that was easy on the ear. An aural antidote to Ian Bostridge.

The composer Joseph Phibbs’s new work for viola and piano, premiered by the violist of the Belcea Quartet Krzysztof Chorzelski with Laurene Durantel, was a relatively easy-listen too in that it was rich in melody – much of the lyricism based on the ‘found objects’ of Jewish folk songs which had been absorbed into the score.

But “Letters from Warsaw”, as it was called, had a profoundly deep, dark resonance inspired by wartime events in the Warsaw Ghetto, from which Chorzelski’s mother miraculously escaped as a small child. The sparely recollected folk songs bore affinity with Shostakovich (or perhaps, the soundtrack to a Holocaust film), but the treatment was distinctive and affecting. Beautifully performed as well.

The best performance that I heard during the HAF, though, came from the Armida Quartet, who are current BBC New Generation Artists based in Germany. Their sharply sculpted fresh, clean sound brought an invigorating fierceness to familiar works by Schubert and Schumann, even if the attack was sometimes over-explosive. And they held the audience spellbound by the unexpected magic of a quartet by the contemporary German composer Jorg Widman.

Opening with all four players’ bows biting the strings without producing actual tone, it felt like some emergent being breaking from its shell into uncertain life. A powerful piece, played with imaginative force.