There’s not much joy in Shostakovich’s 15 quartets: they rarely smile, and when they do it’s closer to a grimace, with a gnawing in the gut that never quite resolves. Their colouring is largely grey (battleship grey, as the composer Robin Holloway describes it). And a concert series based around this music is a tough thing for a festival to programme.
But the Ryedale Festival in Yorkshire has just done it, with the excellent Carducci Quartet. And to make it even darker it was done with readings from the desolate poetry of Shostakovich’s contemporary Anna Akhmatova, sternly delivered by the actor Alex Jennings. Miserable or what?
But other people’s pain can be cathartic; and these concerts – which took place in country churches scattered through the Yorkshire Dales – played out like therapy, leaving their audience drained but grateful. The Carducci’s way with Shostakovich wasn’t blistering as some can be: it was controlled, contained and nuanced. But it made its point. And as the quartets piled up they acquired collective strength.
That Ryedale pulls off feats like this without a penny from the Arts Council – the festival is totally self-funding – is a source of wonder. And that its impressive two-week programme takes in opera, done on shoestring terms but never mind, is even more extraordinary. The opera this year was the 18-year-old Mozart’s La finta giardiniera: an apprentice piece that tries out ideas the composer will make better use of later on and, to be truthful, is slightly tedious, with characters whose love entanglements are hard to care about. But Ryedale did it nicely in the Ampleforth School theatre, using an abridged edition by John Warrack, and with an engaging young cast that included one potential star: a baritone called Harry Thatcher with a radiant personality and self-assurance that lit up the stage whenever he appeared.
Another joy of Ryedale is its use of local stately homes you wouldn’t normally see inside because they’re still inhabited. And one is Sledmere House, where the Carduccis (on a busman’s holiday from Shostakovich) performed Philip Glass and Dvořák in the library. The Glass was conscientiously played dross, the Dvořák more worthwhile. But best of all was the experience of sitting in this elegant, saloon-like space listening to chamber music in the sort of chamber such things were originally intended for: domestic, intimate, but with the grandeur of a view out onto sweeping parkland (to distract you when the Glass becomes unbearable). It’s Ryedale’s speciality. And I’m a fan.
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