Take that, Classic FM!

The Cheltenham Music Festival is an unlikely setting for artistic rebellion.

There is nothing in the stolidly Edwardian marble and pastel shades of Cheltenham's Town Hall that speaks of rebellion. The town itself -- originally a spa for well-heeled Regency gentry -- is all Cotswold stone and laboriously tasteful bistros, and the annual Music Festival an unimpeachable mixture of local talent and international superstars.

Yet it was here last week that a young Russian violinist flouted the rules and blew the doors off that most hackneyed of classical favourites, Vivaldi's Four Seasons.

Giving Londoners an unarguable reason to brave the trek to the West Country, the line-up for this year's Cheltenham Music Festival includes performances from Freddy Kempf, Sarah Connolly and Steven Isserlis. Last Tuesday, however, it was Alina Ibragimova, the Russian violinist who performed at Yehudi Menhuin's funeral at the age of just 14, who took to the platform with the European Union Chamber Orchestra to perform an unusual programme of Vivaldi and Tchaikovsky's Souvenir de Florence.

Framed by readings of a new set of sonnets by Andrew Motion, it seemed possible, for the first time since Nigel Kennedy's now ubiquitously anarchic rendering, that Vivaldi's concerto might be startled out of its cotton-padded Classic FM coma and back into life.

The images of Motion's poetry, a series of meditations on the passing of time, nature and love that owed much to Eliot's Four Quartets, were most delicately precise in their rendering of the natural landscape -- the frost that "slips a filigree sleeve along the still-bare Mulberry arms" -- focusing and newly reanimating Vivaldi's own musical sketchings.

Taking her place among the orchestra rather than out in front, Ibragimova signalled her understanding of the peculiarly intimate relationship necessary between solo and orchestral forces here. Opening with the impossibly fragile bird calls of "Spring", hers was an interpretation of calculated extremes, following the colourfully programmatic contours of the music with reckless commitment.

Moments of extroverted dynamism -- the chromatic third-movement storm music of "Summer", the opening of "Autumn" -- and the starkly transparent, introspective textures of the largo in "Spring" or the allegro of "Winter" were dramatically juxtaposed, Ibragimova trusting in the solidly familiar structure of the work to absorb the shock of her lyrical shiftings of dynamic and tempo.

Sacrificing polish for a febrile urgency (sadly not always matched by the rather polite forces of EUCO, who only came into their own in the Tchaikovsky), the result was both authentic in content and bluntly contemporary in delivery, with an immediacy in the solo passages of almost improvisatory fluidity.

Despite the odd flaw of intonation or tone, moments where her technique was not quite the equal of her expressive intent, Ibragimova delivered a performance so fragile, so intelligently modern, that one half expected the great marble pillars of the hall to topple from iconoclastic shock.

More traditional, though perhaps no less provocative, was Thursday night's festival concert at Tewkesbury Abbey. Celebrating its 400th anniversary this year, Monteverdi's Vespers is one of the most notorious sources of artistic contention, provoking the musicologist Denis Arnold to conclude that, "to perform it is to court disaster".

Little is known of its true composition date, original performance context, or even its pitch, but most vexed has been the question of vocal forces. More typically performed by a massed choir and soloists, there is a case to be made for using just solo voices -- a case given persuasive life in Thursday's performance by Peter Harvey, the Magdalena Consort and ten vocal soloists.

Scored with only two treble lines, the distinctive texture of the work is dominated by its eight lower voice parts. In the resonant acoustic space of Tewkesbury Abbey, the impact was both clear and gloriously powerful, with Harvey (who contributed a baritone part as well as directing) able to balance the collective force of the men and orchestra against the lighter sopranos of Elin Manahan Thomas and Julia Doyle.

In doing away with a full choir, Harvey and his performers did lose a central source of dramatic contrast, sometimes failing to compensate sufficiently with dynamics, which tended to default to a full-toned mf -- not aided by some occasionally rather brash orchestral playing. Texturally, however, the single voices of the ensemble yielded an unusual clarity and flexibility, with the intricate decorative detail of the vocal ornamentation emerging clearly silhouetted against the collective texture.

With soloists of this quality -- James Gilchrist, Charles Daniels, Eamonn Dougan, Robert Macdonald -- vocal excellence was a given, and most striking was the trust and communication on display between the performers in this highly ornamental and delicately spun music. Two high points were the duets "Pulchra es" and "Duo Seraphim". The latter, an evocative description of two angels calling to each other, became, in the voices of Gilchrist and Daniels, an impossibly fluid battle of skills, the two diving and dovetailing among one another with ecstatic urgency.

Sacred and secular, national and international: this year's Cheltenham Music Festival represents a stylish challenge to our disproportionately London-centred classical scene. With the coming weeks bringing major music festivals to Edinburgh, York, Gloucester and Dartington, the bar has been set high indeed.

Alexandra Coghlan is the New Statesman's classical music critic.

THOM ATKINSON
Show Hide image

Lionel Shriver's new novel creates a whole world – but can't quite grasp its inhabitats

Like Shriver's previous offerings, The Mandibles: a Family – 2029-2047 takes on a difficult topic: this time, American debt.

If your son takes a bow-and-arrow set to school and kills nine of his classmates, how do you know how much responsibility you bear for his actions, if any? If you have been living frugally for decades so that you can retire early to a tropical island and, just before you do so, your wife is diagnosed with aggressive and terminal cancer, do you have an obligation to spend your entire savings to prolong her life by a couple of months? If your brother is morbidly obese and the best chance he has of losing the 200-odd pounds that will save his life is for you to leave your husband and teenage stepchildren and to live with him, monitoring every calorie he ingests, should you do so?

These questions are at the centre of three of Lionel Shriver’s previous novels, namely: We Need to Talk About Kevin (her eighth, which brought her worldwide fame in 2003 after nearly two decades of writing in obscurity), So Much for That (2010) and Big Brother (2013). Shriver is fascinated by how we make sense of our responsibilities to and for those around us. She explores this theme through the psyches of her main characters as they confront extreme personal circumstances that chime with contemporary American socio-political issues: mass shootings, the health-care system, the obesity epidemic.

In The Mandibles, she takes on the US economy (Shriver is an American, although she lives in England). The book opens 13 years in the future, with the collapse of the dollar and America defaulting on its national debt. The president – the country’s first Latino head of state – forbids capital over $100 leaving the country and citizens are required to hand over to the government any gold they own, down to their wedding rings. This all takes place against a background of environmental change, an ageing population, racial tension and widespread unemployment, which is caused, in part, by the ability of robots to do what used to be human work.

Shriver’s powers of invention are considerable and, combined with a dark sense of humour, have often provided relief from the bleak subjects to which she is drawn. In So Much for That, for example, the cancer-battling wife renames the drugs she is prescribed: marzipan for lorazepam, Attaboy for Ativan, and so on.

The future setting of The Mandibles allows Shriver’s inventiveness full rein. “Awesome” and “cool” are out of date; the kids say “malicious” and “careless” instead. No one uses smartphones any more; they use “fleXes”, a device that can be folded to any size and is “so thin that, before the distinctive bright colours of its second generation, some folks had thrown theirs away, mistaking the wads in their pockets for tissues”. No one reads novels any more, either, but a post-crisis economic treatise called The Corrections gets a lot of attention. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, the state of the publishing industry is one of the most fully imagined aspects of Shriver’s future.)

Most members of the Mandible family aren’t prepared for how quickly – and how much – the economic crisis will change their lives. They have all been assuming that when their 97-year-old patriarch, Douglas, dies, the family fortune would filter down to his son and daughter and then to his son’s children and grandchildren. But the crisis wipes out the Mandible money and Douglas and his dementia-suffering second wife are forced to move out of their high-end care home and in with his son, Carter.

Carter’s two daughters struggle with the situation in their own ways. The richer of the two, Avery, has to adjust to no longer being able to afford extra-virgin olive oil, while Florence, for whom olive oil has long been a luxury, resigns herself to feeding her family cabbage and rice for every meal. She does the weekly shopping as soon as she is paid: as a result of hyperinflation, prices can rise steeply in a single day. When both Avery and her husband lose their jobs, they have to leave their house and take up residence with their teenage children in Florence’s already overcrowded home.

The Mandibles asks us to consider how we know what we owe to our family and our community and what counts as fair when all of the structures around which we have built our lives become unstable. There is an impressive thoroughness to Shriver’s imagining of the consequences of full-scale economic collapse. This thoroughness, however, makes the novel feel psychologically flat.

The character to whom she devotes most time is Florence’s son Willing, a teenager at the beginning of the book. An economics autodidact, he has a preternatural ability to judge just how things will get worse and to prepare accordingly.

Another Mandible insists that things will get back to normal. Another gets involved in the black market. Another reinvents herself as a model of altruism. Different characters react to catastrophe differently but the way in which Shriver moves between so many of them and has them make so many difficult decisions in difficult circumstances makes her engagement with each feel cursory. She creates a whole world but not quite whole human beings. 

The Mandibles: a Family – 2029-2047 by Lionel Shriver is published by Borough Press (400pp, £16.99)

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster