The Two Moors Festival is a phenomenon that doesn’t answer to the laws of reason. Its events take place in hard-to-get-to towns and villages across a sweeping stretch of south-west England with more sheep than people and long drives, however scenic, from one venue to the next. It shouldn’t work. But happily it does, and audiences pour into its concerts to hear big names playing tiny places.
One of them when I was there the other week was Jacqui Dankworth, daughter of the late Sir John and singing, in the picture-perfect Exmoor town of Dulverton, a concert of her father’s jazz-inflected Shakespeare settings. There are lots of them, and they get done in ones or twos as encores at the end of “serious” song recitals. But I’ve never heard them sung as a collection as they were here, or performed with such entrancing virtuosity and effortless distinction.
Jacqui Dankworth’s other parent is the singer for whom all these Shakespeare settings were first made, Dame Cleo Laine. And while the daughter’s voice is lighter, brighter and free-floating, it has many of the mother’s attributes – like warmth, charisma and an agile, gravity-defying sleekness that sweeps back and forth between extremities of register.
As someone whose credentials include acting with the RSC and National Theatre, Dankworth also knows how to deliver text. She made familiar words sound fresh. And she convinced me that these settings aren’t just entertaining cabaret: they have a wisdom and a substance. I was totally won over by her concert, which will definitely rank among the best experiences of my listening year.
I wasn’t so entranced by one of Two Moors’s other sell-out names, Alison Balsom. She is of course a fabulous performer, maybe the outstanding trumpeter of modern times. But is the trumpet a congenial recital instrument? Perhaps not. Even in the hands of masters, there’s a hectoring relentlessness of tone that never blends with the piano, played here by Tom Poster. Interesting rarities by Hindemith and Honegger made the recital worthwhile. But there’s not a lot of serious chamber repertoire for trumpet, and the effort made here to create some by adapting Brahms’s Horn Trio for trumpet, trombone and piano was a bad idea. It sounded blowsy, heavy and pedestrian.
By contrast, a Two Moors recital on the previous evening by the Austrian pianist Christoph Berner was awash with good ideas. His cleverly constructed programme based around Vienna, Schubert and the waltz was handsomely presented, ending with a magisterial account of Brahms’s Piano Sonata No 1 which could only leave you wondering why his fame is largely limited to German-speaking territories.
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