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.

Photo: Getty
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Poo jokes and pessimism – the scatological legacy of British humour

Is it simply a testament to our good nature, or a sign of a darker kind of cynicism?

Many Brits will have amused themselves this summer by packing a tent, stashing their narcotics and heading over to a muddy field in the middle of nowhere to brave the torrential rain at a music festival.

Wallowing in the mud and other more faecal byproducts to the soundtrack of up-and-coming bands is considered the peak of hedonism for many in the UK, and there is something quintessentially British about the way we willfully embrace the general state of depravity that most of our festivals inevitably collapse into.

One internet meme that perfectly epitomises the difference between British and American festival culture shows an image of a woman at a US event pulling a sad face as she reveals the worst thing she’s seen: “Spitting on the ground.” On her right, a British man slumped in a camping chair holds up his sign, reading: “A man covered in his own shit sniffing ketamine off his mate’s unwashed scrotum.”

There’s a cheerful pride with which Brits embrace bodily dysfunction as a part of our comic culture, and a common trope of British humour involves undermining the stiff upper lip attitude associated with English people, often with an act of complete depravity that dispels any illusion of class and respectability. Britons have always been partial to a good old-fashioned dose of scatological humour, from Chaucer’s bawdy fabliaux that celebrate obscenity, to Shakespeare’s Falstaff, or Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Swift’s "Scatological Cycle".

Much of the comic effect that these writers create derives from undermining high-brow intellect or spirituality with the low-brow of the rear end – for example the part in Chaucer’s Summoner’s Tale, where the division of an old man’s fart into 12 serves as a parody of the descent of the holy ghost at Pentecost.

Faeces has long since been ingrained in our past literary and historical culture – after all, as the great Shakespeare was writing some of the western world’s most seminal pieces of English literature, his chamber-maid was most likely throwing pieces of his own faeces out of the window next to him.

In English literature, scatological humour can be juvenile, but it has also been used to represent wider social anxieties. In turning bottoms up and exposing the rear end, "shiterature" is often about breaking taboos, and exposing the dirty underbelly of society. Part of the "civilising" process that societies perform to reach a high level of sophistication involves distancing oneself from one’s own excrement, and scatology reverses this by shedding a light on our dirtiest natural habits. Swift’s excremental vision asked us to peel back the mask of genteel individuals, revealing their true and disgusting selves.

Scatology can also represent collective self-disgust, and has been used to question the integrity of a British national identity that has in the past denied its colonial wrongdoings. In Tristram Shandy, the protagonist's porous and leaking diseased body has been interpreted as a metaphor for the British Empire, and indeed the whole being of the Shandean gentleman is sub-textually supported by British colonialism, being as they are descended from merchants who profited from eastern goods sold to the European bourgeois and aristocrats.

Scatology has been used to represent hypochondria, the crisis of the aristocracy, self-disgust and sexual disgust – incidentally all things that we might find at an English festival.

The onslaught of the modern era hasn’t managed to dispel our fondness for injecting sophisticated comedy with snippets of scatological humour. In Peep Show for example, a show largely appreciated for its dry wit and irony, a hilarious scene involves Mark suffering from uncontrollable diarrhea as his boss watches on in disgust. Another brilliant scene is where Jeremy’s employer at the gym confronts him with a plastic bag filled with a human stool, which Jez had used to frame another employee for pooing in the pool.

In a similar vein, one of the most famous scenes in The Inbetweeners is where the uptight Will manages to poo himself during one of his A-level exams. In the second movie, there is another disgusting poo in the pool scene.

In the dark comedy series The Mighty Boosh, characters reference "taking a shit" on objects ranging from a salad, to a swan, to even "your mum". Almost all of these characters (Mark from Peep Show, Will from The Inbetweeners and The Mighty Boosh's Howard Moon) see themselves in some way as representative of a modern British gentleman – prudish, well educated and well spoken. Each of them at points embarrasses themselves and their image with reference to their bowel movements.

It’s a cliché that British humour is about losers, and that we are more prone to self-deprecation than our friends across the pond – a cliché that is not without some truth. 

Admittedly nowadays, much American humour similarly relies on self-deprecation and laughing at the sorry fate of "losers", but cynicism and irony are more fundamental to British comedy. On commenting on the difference between the American and British versions of The Office, Ricky Gervais once said that in the UK: "Failure and disappointment lurk around every corner… We use (irony) as liberally as prepositions in every day speech. We tease our friends. We use sarcasm as a shield and weapon." 

It is certainly true that in Britain, we are particularly pre-occupied with laughing at the failures of the self, and this can manifest itself potently through deprecation of the body.

Maybe the general sense of pessimism that is alluded to so much in the UK is due to our dismal weather, and maybe our ability to laugh at ourselves and our dysfunctions is a simply a testament to our good nature, and something to be applauded. Perhaps it is just something in the air rising from our manure-ploughed green and pleasant lands that inspires in our British comedians the desire to return time and time again to the scatological trope. Or perhaps, if we dig a bit deeper into our dung-fertilised lands, we might find that an anxiety about the foundations of British identity is behind the relentless desire to represent the permeability of the personal and national body.

Should we be embracing our tendency towards self-deprecation, or does it lead to a more problematic kind of cynicism that is restrictive, making us resistant to the idea of radical change? Perhaps we are destined to remain stuck in the mud forever, grumbling about the bad weather as we desperately shelter from the rain under a gazebo, sipping on the dregs of warm beer, pretending we’re having a good time – and who knows? Maybe this is what a good time looks like. Swift once told us to bless the "gaudy tulips raised from dung" – British comedy continues to do so quite literally.