Running a music festival in London is a hard task, because London is effectively a year-round festival with so much going on that no one notices your efforts. And when the Hampstead Arts Festival was set up – from the ashes of assorted previous, precariously lived existences – its long-term future wasn’t hopeful.
But its policy of principled, small-scale, top-quality events has worked. The programme this year has been brave, with serious-listening concerts by the likes of the Arditti Quartet playing Birtwistle and Brian Ferneyhough – a big ask for a local audience, but an opportunity to come to terms with two outstanding figures of contemporary music.
For softer tastes there was also cellist Raphael Wallfisch playing Tchaikovsky with the English Chamber Orchestra. But the biggest draw was pianist Stephen Hough playing the same programme he gave in the Barbican a year or so ago, but in more intimate surroundings and with even more authority.
Hough’s special genius is that he combines immaculate technique and presentation with compelling intellectual substance. You can almost feel the contact firing between brain and fingers, the result refined but never cold. It’s a profoundly human kind of virtuosity and suited to Schubert’s late Piano Sonata in A minor that began his concert: an uneven, hard-to-measure piece whose outer movements make strong statements while the middle one is utter Biedermeier, with a repeating, fussy ornamental figure that’s the sound equivalent of skirted piano legs and lace antimacassars.
The best thing on the programme, though, was Hough’s own 3rd Sonata: an apparent exercise in serial modernism (of a kind no longer fashionable). In actuality it is full of triads which reflect the fact that the sonata bears the title Trinitas, and is based around the number 3. It quotes, with wrong-note harmonies, the Trinitarian hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy”. Those distortions (reminiscent of Charles Ives) and rhythms swung by heavily emphatic syncopations make it sound American to my ears.
Whether by design or accident, the annual Night Under the Stars concert held at the Festival Hall in aid of The Passage – a charity that cares for homeless people – coincided with the US elections. So Americana ruled the programme, with a robust roll-call of pop hits by Bernstein, Copland, Gershwin (curiously, no Sondheim) led by the Orion Orchestra under conductor Toby Purser.
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