Having been cancelled in 2020, and slimmed-down and socially-distanced in 2021, the Cheltenham Music Festival finally returns to full scale and capacity in 2022. Now in its 77th year, the festival’s nine days of music-making comprise a packed programme of events ranging from the intimate to the monumental.

Isata and Sheku Kanneh-Mason
© Jake Turney

Dominating this year is a wide range of chamber recitals headlined by top international artists. The popular Kanneh-Mason Duo will be contrasting sprightly music by Frank Bridge with the introspective cello sonatas of Britten and Shostakovich. These two composers will be explored further by the Brodsky Quartet, celebrating a half-century together with two of their later quartets, in addition to a more recent Beethoven homage from Japanese composer Karen Tanaka. Gould Piano Trio will première a short new piece by Australia-born, UK-based composer Andrew Chen in the midst of larger-scale works by Fauré, Beethoven and Saint-Saëns. Lieder by Clara and Robert Schumann, and Fanny and Felix Mendelssohn form the core of soprano Lucy Crowe’s Pittville Pump Room recital, with solo keyboard recitals from Ingrid Fliter and Mahan Esfahani completing the main chamber music line-up. Fliter will focus on a trio of sonatas by Scarlatti, Haydn and Beethoven, concluding with Schumann’s dazzling Symphonic Etudes, while Esfahani will be diving deep into Bach’s contrapuntally labyrinthine Art of Fugue.

These flagship chamber concerts are supplemented by two additional recital series. The first showcases younger performers from the BBC’s long-standing New Generation Artists scheme. Helen Charlston and Kunal Lahiry will focus on nature-related songs by Mahler, Messiaen, Purcell and Judith Weir, while Johan Dalene and Charles Owen will perform folk-infused works by Poulenc, Grieg and Lili Boulanger. Tom Borrow and Quatuor Arod are offering a lively mix of Mozart and Dvořák, whereas pianist Alexander Gadjiev will be tackling a heady combination of impressionism and high romanticism in music by Debussy and Scriabin.

The other series comprises the festival’s four “Rush Hour” recitals, for those wanting to avoid Cheltenham’s traffic queues in favour of an hour of musical diversion. These include Samuele Telari, who will be putting his accordion through its paces in diverse works from Franck, Schubert, Bruno Mantovani and Sofia Gubaidalina, and Leo Popplewell, who returns to the cello writing of Britten with one of Bach’s Cello Suites and a short arrangement of the Catalan folk song “El Cant dels Ocells” (Song of the Birds) by Sally Beamish.

Tenebrae choir
© Sim Canetty-Clarke

Those new to classical music can once again indulge in Cheltenham’s traditional “Classical Mixtape”, where the choir of Merton College, Oxford, will fill Gloucester Cathedral with a blend of ancient and modern, while listeners sit, recline and relax. Vocal group Tenebrae will be combining sung and spoken works in their concert at Tewkesbury Abbey. Titled ‘Humanity and Liberty’, and featuring actress Juliet Stevenson, the evening will present various expressions of freedom from contexts of conflict and occupation, which will no doubt be all the more poignant and significant in light of Russia’s war against Ukraine.

New music is given prominence in several events. One of north England’s most vibrant ensembles, Psappha, will be performing two works taking inspiration from love letters between composers and singers: Conor Mitchell’s stylistically wild Look Both Ways, based on the intimate correspondence between Britten and Peter Pears, and Claire Victoria Roberts’ Miniatures for Piano Trio, drawing on the letters of Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya. Talea Ensemble and soprano Juliet Fraser will be presenting a multimedia work from one of Britain’s most radical composers, Laura Bowler. Her 25-minute work Distance continues Bowler’s ongoing concern with environmental issues, focusing on aspects of plane travel and its effect on both us as passengers and our planet through climate change.

Cheltenham’s annual Composers’ Academy returns with a day of talks and performances titled “Composium”, exploring in depth the nature of creative collaborations in the wake of the pandemic. Further opportunities to reflect on our relationship with music are provided in two additional events. Will Crawford’s will examine the way meditation can play a role in how we both listen to and perform music, while self-professed “ridiculously tall” contralto Hillary Summers will pose the provocative question “What’s So Great About Opera?” at a champagne afternoon tea in Cheltenham’s sumptuous Daffodil restaurant. Assuming the bubbly isn’t enough to seal the deal, Summers will be setting out to convince the audience through a uniquely tongue-in-cheek approach to Baroque and Classical operatic masterworks.

Mahler's Symphony no. 8 in Gloucester Cathedral
© Cheltenham Music Festival | Gloucester Cathedral

Those wanting something more hefty have plenty to choose from. The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic will be bringing a programme of fantastical Russian music, including Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, on the festival’s opening night. Anoushka Shankar and the Britten Sinfonia will be transporting listeners to India for an evening of cross-cultural exploration, while the English Concert will transform Cheltenham Town Hall into a recreation of 1720s London, in a programme of instrumental and vocal works by Handel and Bononcini. For the ultimate in heft, the festival will be closing with Mahler’s enormous Symphony No. 8, the so-called “Symphony of a Thousand”, performed at Gloucester Cathedral by the British Sinfonietta and a plethora of soloists, conducted by Adrian Partington. After two years of frustration, it seems appropriate that Cheltenham 2022 should end with music of transcendence and triumph.

Click here to see all the events of the Cheltenham Music Festival.
This preview was sponsored by the Cheltenham Music Festival