Wimbledon is iconic around the World for all tennis fans. It is surely joined now, after ten years of existence, by the Wimbledon International Music Festival, at least for music enthusiasts. Over this period, it has established itself as a platform for world-famous performers in the finest music ever written. In Anthony Wilkinson the Festival has a hardworking, visionary Director, who not only plans the concerts but also a major new hall for central Wimbledon, to be designed by Frank Gehry.
The Festival is not widely known for its commitment to modern or contemporary music, preferring to offer its loyal audiences access to familiar repertoire. Anyone with any knowledge of twentieth-century music might, therefore, have approached the opening work by Anton Webern, with a degree of trepidation. Langsamer Satz is, in fact, a final statement he made in the romantic style he inherited in his youth from Wagner in particular. From here he developed a highly distinctive musical language which became enshrined in the Second Viennese School (including Schoenberg and Berg).
Robin O’Neill (the Philharmonia's principal bassoonist) has arranged this ‘slow movement’ originally written for string quartet. It makes an atmospheric opener to any concert and was played with warmth and heart. If this is Webern’s farewell to the Romantic era, then Beethoven’s consummate ‘Eroica’ Symphony is a precursor to a different age in which he grew up. Of massive proportions which still shock today. This concert, albeit in a church where reduced forces are needed, confirmed its ability to shock and thrill in equal measure. O’Neill set off, following the two huge opening chords, with great strength and determination in a tempo that would do credit to the ‘authentic’ school where speed often overrides feeling. Here we had both in a beautifully poised and considered view, supported greatly by the musicians’ style and sophistication. All the ingredients needed to promote the enormous range of questions and emotions set before us by Beethoven were answered in majestic ways. The sublime ‘Funeral March’, not too slow here, made a profound impression of mourning and grief; and the Scherzo set off as if a sprinter was in charge and the Trio was made rustic by the delightful playing of the horn section. Sometimes the Finale can seem an anti-climax but O’Neill gave due process to the tempo changes so that the conclusion to this powerful and life-enhancing work came to a victorious conclusion.
In between, the American cellist Zuill Bailey performed Robert Schumann’s Cello Concerto. Bailey has become a regular performer at this Festival. His base seems firmly rooted in the USA but his playing deserves to be better known this side of the pond. He has an ardent, large tone and announced the opening melody in such a way that it seemed a shame when the orchestra took over in the first tutti. This is not a showpiece Concerto and it does require a degree of sensitivity on the part of the soloist to share its manifold qualities. Bailey gave a warm-hearted rendition of music that sometimes hides its charms behind a cloak. No such worries here!