Music reviews: Music at Paxton festival

YEAR after year, the Music at Paxton festival proves its ability to deliver a unique concert experience.

Natalie Clein brought warm immediacy and deep colour to Debussys lyrical lines. Picture: Contributed

Natalie Clein/Håvard Gimse

Star ratingL ****

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Anna Huntley/Joseph Middleton

Star rating: ****

Paxton House, Berwickshire

Of course, it is partly the magnificent setting of the Borders country house, the extensive grounds and the stunning Picture Gallery used for the performances. But more than that, it is a knack of selecting artists and programmes which are personal and personable, intelligent and intelligible, and which ultimately cohere to make a series of compelling and intimate recitals.

British cellist Natalie Clein and Norwegian pianist Håavard Gimse were a prime example of Paxton planning on Sunday. If their programme looked exciting on paper, it was even more startling in real life. Debussy’s Sonata in its centenary year was spilling over with expression from Clein, her passionate commitment to the music showing almost as much in her facial contortions as in the music. Her robust, full-on sound brought warm immediacy and deep colour to Debussy’s lyrical lines.

Gimse, like Clein, is impressively precise and clear, but sounded more reserved in tone, with not quite the right acoustic balance being struck between the two instruments. Clein’s playing was heart-wrenching in Rachmaninov’s G minor Sonata, sensual in the sumptuousness of its lush romance. Still intense, but completely different were Kurtag’s Three Pieces from Signs, Games and Messages, typical miniature masterpieces of his genius in compositional craftsmanship.

In the middle of the week, mezzo Anna Huntley gave a song recital with pianist Joseph Middleton. With a voice and personality as considerable as Huntley’s, it would have been challenging for her not to overshadow her accompanist. Yet, much of the theatre of their programme called for similarity of characterisation from the piano as much as it did from the voice.

Even if Haydn’s cantata Arianna a Naxos isn’t one of his more outstanding scores, it was delivered with a superbly placed sense of drama from Huntley, while never losing a moment of spontaneity. Similarly, she was right under the skin of the character in Schumann’s evergreen Frauenliebe und Leben, using her endlessly pliable voice to maximum effect in Alberto Chamisso’s story of a woman’s life, from falling in love to happy marriage (Du Ring an meinem Finger was exquisite), motherhood and, finally, the sorrow of being widowed.

With tormented love in the Haydn and grieving for lost love in Schumann, it wasn’t an emotionally easy ride for the audience, but that changed in a second half of lighter songs by Sir Arthur Sullivan, Kurt Weill, Michael Flanders and, most amusing, William Bolcom and his Lime Jello Marshmallow Cottage Cheese Surprise – a hilarious send up of women’s institute-type clubs. Giving full vent to Huntley’s voice and theatricality, Tamara, Queen of the Nile, a Manhattan musical number about a schizophrenic teacher working an alternative lifestyle as a stripper, was a closing gem of a song, and one which Huntley takes great delight in introducing to British audiences.

• Music at Paxton runs until tomorrow