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.

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Unmasked: the subtle bitchiness of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 500-page memoir

To my horror, I found myself smirking in amusement or “Mmm!”-ing in agreement on damn near every page.

Poring over pictures of Andrew Lloyd Webber has never been a pet perve of mine, but you wouldn’t have guessed it from the fevered manner in which I pawed through this tome on its arrival, desperate to find some photographical representation of him – the more the better. But it was dismay rather than lust that drove my actions; weighing in at a whopping 500 pages, the book is the size of the Bible. So imagine my astonishment on reading the prologue to discover that this is by no means the end of it – this volume of memoirs ends on the opening night of The Phantom of the Opera. Never have the phrases “merciful release” and “fear of the future” come together in one instant.

The size apart, I’ll admit I started this book with beef against ALW; I love musicals, but only those big overblown beauties which came from Broadway via Hollywood in the middle decades of the 20th century. When a musical gets out its library steps, it loses its soul; when it dresses people up as cats, it becomes musical theatre. And from there it’s a short step, spiritually, to doilies and antimacassars, because while musicals high-kick, musical theatre sticks out its pinky.

But before I had finished the first page, I was already warming to his bright and breezy, slightly spivvy writing style, which contrasted pleasingly with both the size of the book and my preconceptions about him: “Quite how I have managed to be so verbose about the most boring person I have ever written about eludes me.” Imagine my amazement when the pre-teen Lloyd Webber becomes spellbound by those very musicals that I declared the antithesis of his work: South Pacific, Carousel, West Side Story. I ploughed on, hoping that this was a momentary accord, but to my horror I found myself smirking in amusement or “Mmm!”-ing in agreement on damn near every page.

ALW came from an enviably colourful family: a grandmother who was the founder of the somewhat niche Christian Communist Party; a great-aunt who was a member of the Bloomsbury Set and ran a transport cafe; an ancestor who wrote “Casabianca” (“The boy stood on the burning deck…”); a working-class father who won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music and had such a fear of authority that after accidentally calling the fire brigade he hid in a cupboard; a mother who became variously obsessed with a Gibraltan tenor, a vicious monkey named Mimi and a boy genius who she insisted on bringing into the household and glorifying to the distress of her husband; and, most of all, his adored Auntie Vi. The latter was, apparently, the author of the first-ever gay cookbook, one chapter of which – titled “Coq & Game Meat” – was headlined “Too Many Cocks Spoil the Breath”.

Then into this glorious Cold Comfort Farm-like ménage, Tim Rice turns up with his shockingly poor lyrics – “And when Joseph tried it on/He knew his sheepskin days were gone/His astounding clothing took the biscuit/Quite the smoothest person in the district” – and we’re back with a whimper in the horrendous middlebrow hinterland of musical theatre. Happily, the introduction of Rice brings out Lloyd Webber’s subtly bitchy side, which has so far lain dormant. “Like so many of Tim’s songs, it told a pessimistic story,” he remarks of an early lyric. Later he can barely conceal his glee when Rice becomes understandably cross because Melvyn Bragg gets a screenplay credit for the film of Jesus Christ Superstar due to the insertion of the words “Cool it, man.” Their song “Christmas Dream” gets limited American radio play due to Rice’s couplet, “Watch me now, here I go/All I need’s a little snow.” Indeed, the reprinting of Rice’s lyrics throughout the book could be seen less as a tribute to a long-time collaborator than as the ultimate clever throwing of shade, achieved solely by turning the other party’s conceit on themselves.

You can’t spend five decades in show business without seeing the seedy side of people, thankfully, and the drop-dead walk-ons are a highlight of our hero’s sashay through the bazaars of Thespus. Impresario Robert Stigwood “was holding court as if the fabric of Manhattan society would rend asunder without him”; the singer Dana Gillespie “was rumoured to have organized a cock measuring contest in her dressing room. I didn’t enter… bad form to enter a contest you know you’re going to win”; Prince Edward was “stage-struck and hadn’t a clue what to do about it”; a good divorce lawyer “should be firm but sympathetic. Mine turned out to be a right pig”.

He writes without special pleading or shame about his adultery; “Whatever else money can’t buy, it can buy you freedom and with freedom comes the chance to play.” His account of his meeting with Sarah Brightman – both of them married to other people and already putting it about elsewhere when they first connect – is pleasing in its simplicity and lack of bogus romanticism: “I was in love and I proposed to Sarah – well, in truth it wasn’t so much a proposal as a ‘we’re in love, we’re both married, what the fuck do we do about it?’’’

It does – of course, at 500 pages – go on a bit. He trowels on the heterosexuality to an extent he probably wouldn’t had he not chosen the theatre as a profession – and perhaps because he looked so much like gay-bait when young – to the extent that ALW even comes across as a dirty old man when writing of himself as a 21-year-old, with a fair bit of drooling over “schoolgirls”. It’s hard to warm to anyone who buys their first flat on the back of a trust fund from “Granny”. And his obsession with big houses, which he portrays as a fascination with architecture, seemed to my cynical eye to have more to do with simply wanting to own a succession of ever bigger houses.

But the image of the lonely little boy creating a toy theatre based on the London Palladium becoming the man who wakes up every morning marvelling that he owns the actual London Palladium is the stuff of beautiful theatre – far more magical than anything he has actually staged. I found myself pleasantly surprised by this book, but having said that, I’ll be swerving the next one. Life’s too short to take a liking to people whose work you loathe, let alone to do it over the course of a three-volume memoir. 

Unmasked: a Memoir
Andrew Lloyd Webber
HarperCollins, 517pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game