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8th Music at Paxton Festival

Posted by Steve_Barfield
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on Wednesday, 24 July 2013
5 stars

The annual Music at Paxton Festival (19th-28th July 2013) has become one of the most popular and critically regarded festivals of chamber music in Britain and after visiting the opening weekend of the 8th Festival at Paxton House – perhaps the finest neo-Palladian building in Scotland – I was certainly not disappointed.

Paxton House itself is a rather beautiful example of the neoclassical style, a grand villa created in Enlightenment Scotland as  travellers on the grand tour discovered a new interest in the classical period. Begun by Patrick Home in 1758 the architects were John and James Adam of Edinburgh, it was later extended during Georgian times – while retaining its classical proportions – to create the picture gallery where the concerts take place. The neoclassical setting of Paxton’s Picture Gallery – hung with fine pictures from the National Gallery of Scotland – is the kind of grand salon for which such music is intended and this gives an entirely different atmosphere to the pieces you hear, when compared to viewing them in a large auditorium for example.


Fig. 1. The Picture Gallery, Paxton House.

Under the careful eye and ear of festival director Helen Jamieson this joyful celebration of music brings together keen young performers on the cusp of stardom, more established names and enthusiastic and discerning audiences into exactly the kind of intimate space where chamber music really shines. There is an exciting range of music in this year’s festival from things you might expect to hear like Beethoven, Schubert and Schumann to the wilder folk-inspired music of Dvořák, a celebration of the French composer Poulenc who dies 50 years ago, to period baroque works played by Florilegium and a new commission by Anthony Payne in the shape of an octet.

However, leaving aside the splendid setting, there is an array of virtuoso talent on display, coupled with some bold, inventive programming. Forsaking a simple medley of the old Romantic favourites, there were surprising, unusual pieces, as well as strong interpretations of familiar, well-loved work.


Figure 2. The Rhodes Piano Trio

Pianist Alasdair Beatson and baritone, William Berger, partnered in an opening concert of summer-imbued music with a strong folk element that seems so at home in the wild borders between England and Scotland. They performed songs by Ravel, Fara and Dvořák; Berger showed his ample interpretative skills in bringing these songs to life. It is fascinating to be close enough to the performers to see the expressions on Berger’s mobile face as he literally acted out the story of each song. 


In the following concert they joined the renowned Endellion Quartet. This saw performances of two works for string quartet and voice: Samuel Barber’s setting of Arnold’s melancholic poem Dover Beach and Respighi’s sublime Il Tramanto, which uses a translated text by the poet Shelley. Both of these are romantic works, whose seriousness of purpose lies in evoking the beauty of place and which worked extremely well with an audience surrounded by the green countryside of Paxton.


Figure 3.  The Endellion Quartet

The effective coupling of two of Schubert’s powerful meditations on death: Death and the Maiden and the String Quartet in D minor, D810 demonstrated the rapport between all of the different musicians and the Endellion Quartet’s ability to conjure up the powerful conflicts and changes of mood in the work. Although not a typical choice to be played together, this juxtaposition did a great deal to make me see their emotional affinities and in particular, the composer’s emotional ambivalence and struggle with his grief over a lost loved one.

On Saturday Beatson undertook a solo recital of Beethoven’s mysterious and musically revolutionary Sonata in A, op. 101, paired with Schumann Fantasy in C, op. 17 – Beatson’s musicianship was a striking as his moving, sensitive interpretation. It is easy to see why he is making such a name for himself on the concert circuit. The Rhodes Piano Trio followed this with a vigorous, and charismatic concert of music by Czech composers that made me rethink some musical assumptions and to consider in particular how the nationalist, folk-inspired music of the nineteenth century became linked to the more experimental primitivist modernism of the twentieth century.


Figure 4. Alasdair Beatson

Lastly, if you decide to visit Paxton for a few days, then nearby Berwick-on-Tweed makes for a quietly charming base from where you can explore the many, waiting-to-be-discovered pleasures of the English-Scottish borders. It is a rather forgotten backwater in parts but is full of intriguing places as well as unspoilt countryside. Berwick itself is a slightly sleepy town, where building seems to have stopped with the Georgian period and it allows easy access to the coast – Northumbria after all is filled with wonderful golden beaches and ruined castles – as well as the Tweed river which must be crossed to enter Scotland. The town possesses a set of largely intact Elizabethan defensive walls that can be walked, providing interesting vantage points on the town and some picturesque views of the sea.  Holy Island and Lindisfarne castle are not far away and there are boat trips to see Puffins and other sea life. Accommodation seems plentiful and I very much enjoyed my stay at Alannah House, a Bed and Breakfast set in a 300 year old building in Berwick and run by a very friendly and informative couple, Mr Stephen and Mrs. Lynn Flook (

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