Lichfield Festival review: Chetham’s Symphony Orchestra @ Lichfield Cathedral

Last year’s visit by the young orchestra of Chetham’s School of Music was so brilliant I couldn’t wait for their return. I wasn’t disappointed. Once again under the baton of conductor Jac van Steen they achieved a depth and quality of sound that was outstanding.

Their first short offering, Debussy’s Prelude a l’apres-midi d’un faune was exquisite. This early Ballet Russe creation remains in the repertoire of Ballet Rambert whose founder also worked with Diaghilev. The Chets did full justice to its sheer strangeness which evokes a mythical landscape shimmering in the afternoon haze of the antique world, filled with supernatural beings. Only seven minutes long, it’s perfect for a summer festival, and their faultless depiction of its subtly changing moods effortlessly evoked the sense of sublime imminence in this legendary piece.

Szymanowski’s Stabat Mater had the distinction of featuring our own Lichfield Festival Chorus in a most impressive performance of this monumental work. The programme helpfully gave a translation of its latin text which soloists Catriona Hewitson, Margaret McDonald and Simon Wallfisch imbued with a passionate beauty while the powerful Chorus explored its strange sonic landscape whose changing moods were by turns ethereal and highly dramatic.

After the interval came three pieces by Ravel, another Diaghilev collaborator. Alborada del Gracioso and Rapsodie espagnole had a Spanish theme, the first based on a based on a type of folk song and the second a fast dance, the Malaguena.

Both were sprightly, evoking sun-baked landscapes and their people, by turns fiery and tender. La Valse was darker, and for me the least successful of the evening’s offerings. It’s maybe not insignificant that Diaghilev commissioned it for his Ballet Russe but later dismissed it as unsuitable for this ground-breaking company with its avant-garde dancers and choreographers. While it seemed to expose Ravel’s limitations, like all the works performed on this lovely evening it was cleverly chosen to showcase the awesome strengths of an enchanting young orchestra.

Long may they return.