Marvão International Music Festival

So here we are, sitting in the remains of a 14th-century castle at the edge of a mountain village. The sun sets, spreading golden hues on the old walls, swifts bob and swoop through the skies above, catching the last rays. And, in the midst of this idyllic postcard-scene, there’s an orchestra—a good one—playing Mozart; it really is magical.

As unlike as you can get to the usual sun holiday in the Algarve, the Marvão International Music Festival offers us a different view of Portugal, as well as the opportunity to hear and see some exciting new performers from across the world. Two-and-a-half hour’s drive inland from Lisbon Airport (the festival provides a free shuttle if you need it), Marvão is perched along the summit of a ridge 900m above sea level, looking across the distant fields of Alentejo and beyond with commanding views in all directions.

The village itself is a charming little labyrinth of alleyways winding past white-washed terraces, centuries old, climbing to the castle at the far end, with its high central tower, cliff-edge views, and the courtyard that serves as the festival’s main stage. The story goes that festival director, Christoph Poppen, first came here while on a cycling holiday with his wife (soprano Juliane Banse) and a few friends. He was so taken with the beauty and quiet of the village that he bought a house here and then, in 2014, started a music festival. The initial three-day season soon grew and this year fills ten days, with over 40 concerts, drawing on the talents of some 600 musicians. Just as Marvão looks out at the countryside below in all directions, so too the festival takes in a variety of venues from the area: churches and other spaces in the village itself, the towns of Castelo le Vide and Portalegre, the Roman ruins at Ammaia, even crossing the border to Valéncia de Alcántara in nearby Spain.

The sense of optimism and energy is impressive. Poppen clearly has a way of bringing people and ideas together, as this festival reflects the support and goodwill of local, regional, and national government, along with corporate sponsors, personal donations, and the help of cultural institutions like the Goethe-Institut and the Anja Fichte Foundation (supporting young musicians).

This, the Sixth Marvão Festival, offers a mix of orchestral concerts and chamber music recitals, choirs, solo singers, late-night specials, a children’s concert, lectures, and art exhibitions. The biggest setting is the open-air concert at the ancient ruins of Ammaia, with a locally-organised festival chorus and orchestra coming together with soloists and the Portuguese Symphonic Band to present Carl Orff’sCarmina Burana, while the smallest recitals involve just one violinist in a room on her own—as you’ll see below. We attended the first two days of the festival.

 

Friday

The Festival opens on Friday evening in the castle garden with a short informal reception, speeches from Portugal’s culture minister, and the local mayor, before we hear from Artistic Director Poppen. Wishing everyone a good festival, he speaks of the connectedness that he felt between the vivid natural setting, the power of music, and the audience, that ‘we share a little part of paradise here’. Looking around, it is hard to disagree.

The opening concert follows in the main courtyard of the castle. The space can hold an audience of about 500, plus the temporary stage for the artists. When classical music enters the wild and goes outdoors, audibility and balance can be a problem. Here, however, the castle offers a lovely natural acoustic, with no amplification needed. The Cologne Chamber Orchestra opens with a well-judged account of the Overture to Mozart’s opera La Clemenza di Tito. Poppen conducts, drawing out a graceful and nicely-balanced sound from the ensemble, choosing tempi that allow the music to breathe and sound well in the space. Brass instruments were originally designed to be played outdoors, so Mozart’s Horn Concerto No. 4 in E-flat is an appropriate piece to follow. Adding to the experience here is the presence of soloist Felix Klieser, an exceptional player with a unique story. Born with no arms, he fell in love with the French horn at an early age, and learnt how to play it with his feet, the instrument fixed on a stand. His playing is excellent, smart and well-phrased, with a warmly expressive tone, the slow movement especially smooth. The first half closes with the aria ‘Tutti nel cor vi sento’, Electra’s jealousy aria from Mozart’s Idomeneo, sung with superb intensity by soprano (and festival co-director) Juliane Banse. The orchestra works well with the singer, though here we do feel the lack of a theatrical acoustic, the bounce of the voice against the back wall, if only for the sake of the character!

The second half brings a change of mood, with music by Robert Schumann (his Cello Concerto in A minor), and soloist Aurélien Pascal. This proves to be the highlight of the concert. Pascal is an excellent communicator, sensitive and articulate, at times producing a breathlessly sweet tone on his instrument. Issues of balance typically plague works for cello and orchestra, but there is none of that here, with soloist and ensemble working instinctively together, truly a class act. As the soloists each take their bows, they are presented not with the usual flowers but with a bottle of wine, a nice touch—the real flower of Alentejo’s stony soil, perhaps, and also adding an air of celebration.

We have a break, before returning to the castle for the late-night event. Instead of the courtyard, the action descends underground to the former cistern. Here Clara-Jumi Kangperforms two works by Johann Sebastian Bach for unaccompanied violin, the Sonata No. 1 in G minor, and the Partita No. 1 in B minor. The space is dark and enclosed, only accessible by a narrow staircase. Once the audience is seated, the lights are lowered to almost nothing, plunging us into near darkness. Kang begins to play, beautifully, and the effect is intense. The darkness and the close acoustic magnify the experience and material of the music to a powerful level, creating something immersive and enveloping.

 

Saturday

Saturday offers the festival’s first full day of music, starting with a morning recital in the little church of São Tiago given by Ensemble Plural. This Spanish group specialises in modern and contemporary music, and this mix of the 20thand 21stcenturies is reflected in the programme. Hearing Béla Bartók’s three-movement Contrasts(for violin, clarinet, and piano), with its bright, crisp textures, proves an excellent way to start the day. Players Ema Alexeeva (violin), Antonio Lapaz (clarinet), and Carlos Apellániz (piano), vividly bring across the stylish informality of the material, concentrating their approach beautifully for the delicate slow movement before driving headlong into the virtuosity of the wild finale. Joined by Lope Morales (flute) and Mikolaj Konopelski (cello), along with conductor Fabián Panisello, the ensemble next plays a work composed for them, Pentesilea(2017) by Jesús Torres. This atmospheric piece opens with slow and sustained gestures, the harmonic language almost recalling that of Olivier Messiaen, before rising to dramatic exchanges, and given a vivid and committed performance by the players.

The most significant item in the programme follows the interval, as the artists return to play Anton Webern’s piano-quintet arrangement of the Chamber Symphony No. 1, Op. 9by Arnold Schoenberg. This wonderful work is given a richly refined reading, full of energy and detail, creating an all-encompassing flow. A very rewarding performance. To finish, the ensemble presents a work by its conductor and founder, Fabián Panisello, his à 5(2017), for the same combination as the previous two works. Easily the most challenging item in the programme, this concentrated work crosses between extremes of timbre, pitch, and texture—an eclectic mix of experimental styles emerging through disjointed shards of sound. While perhaps not to everyone’s taste, it was exciting to hear something as fresh and uncompromising as this material, in such a context, providing much food for thought.

A more relaxing experience is offered in the afternoon at the larger (and thankfully cooler) convent church of Nossa Senhora da Estrela by the Lisbon-based Coro Ricercare, a chamber choir of about 40 voices conducted by Pedro Teixeira. Their programme follows a theme of the four elements—‘An Earth of Water, Air, and Fire’—with madrigals by Thomas Morley (‘Fyer, fyer!’) and Claudio Monteverdi (‘Zefiro torna’), and Lili Boulanger’s ‘Hymn to the Sun’, placed alongside pieces by current choral composers Morten Lauridsen, Frank Ticheli, Eriks Esenvalds, Daniel Elder, and Eric Whitacre. Having such a large ensemble gives quite a punch to the early madrigals, and as the programme progresses it is easy to appreciate the quality of the choir, with a beautiful evenness of tone from top to bottom, excellent tuning, and some very good voices, including a fine (un-named) mezzo-soprano soloist. Given such a capable group, it would be interesting to hear them in more challenging material, but what they produce is very good indeed.

The evening concert takes us from Marvão back down the mountain to the nearby town of Castelo de Vide and the church of Santa Maria da Devesa. Christoph Poppen once again conducts the Cologne Chamber Orchestra, this time in an all-Beethoven programme. Spanish pianist Javier Perianes(last seen in Dublin in March 2018) features as soloist in the Piano Concerto No. 1 in C. While it’s excellent to hear this material played by a chamber orchestra (more likely the size of ensemble that Beethoven would have known), the highly resonant acoustic of this large baroque church creates a strange effect for listeners, partially smothering the sound in a swim of echoes. Pianist and ensemble adjust to this as best they can, keeping steady tempi and good control. There are some lovely woodwind solos and a silvery gleam from the strings, but one senses that in another space this could come across much more strongly. Perianes’s performance is stylish, and he draws some fine colours from the piano. His encore, Edvard Grieg’s ‘Notturno’, is lovingly played, miraculously projecting a gentle intimacy. To finish, we hear the Symphony No. 2 in D. Poppen and the orchestra bring a confident familiarity to their playing of this work, projecting a rich and deeply-thought interpretation, with fine details; there is much to enjoy.

There is a wonderful sense of openness and optimism in the approach to presenting music here. Sponsorship allows ticket prices to be kept affordable, and this festival seeks to make the miracle that is Marvão accessible, allowing us to hear music and musicians we’ve not heard before, sometimes in contexts we couldn’t have imagined. Events like this feed and free the imagination: magical is a good word to describe it.

Images courtesy Festival Internacional de Música de Marvão (FIMM)

Travel thanks to Visit Portugal and Visit Alentejo