The Real Life Event

A review of the Southwell Music Festival 2018 by Nottingham Post critic William Ruff:

There’s no such thing as disappointment at the Southwell Festival – except when the tickets sell out.

Forget about births, marriages and deaths: it’s the annual Southwell Music Festival that’s the real life event.  It’s not at all unusual to hear audience members declaring that some of the richest musical experiences of their concert-going lives have occurred in the five years of the Festival’s existence.  Many events quickly become sell-outs – and you can see why.  Take just two events from the 2018 Festival: standing ovations for the exceptional performance of Bach’s B Minor Mass on the opening Wednesday and for another superlative interpretation from Sheku Kanneh-Mason, this time of Elgar’s Cello Concerto on Saturday night.

As the Festival grows, so the task of assembling the artists, creating the ever more adventurous programme and ensuring that such a wealth of talent is used to maximum effect must become more complex.  That it all works so smoothly is a testimony to the dedication not only to the many musicians but also to the team of administrators and volunteers who are also on hand to direct operations and welcome visitors with such warmth and enthusiasm.  And at the helm, with seemingly endless energy, is the Festival’s Artistic Director Marcus Farnsworth.

Colours were well and truly nailed to the mast on the opening day.  It takes both courage and confidence to start a Festival with Bach’s B Minor Mass: magnificent music which makes almost impossible demands on the performers.  Marcus Farnsworth’s direction was masterly, moulding the outstanding vocal and instrumental forces gathered together into an intuitive chamber ensemble, not only producing beautiful sound individually but also listening, responding, communing with each other, subsuming their own artistry into a greater whole.

Pianist Clare Hammond was one of several Nottingham artists to feature this year.  Her stylish, elegant way with a Haydn sonata delighted those attending her Saturday lunchtime recital. Her sense of humour emerged with three short depictions of bees by Mendelssohn, Rimsky-Korsakov and (hilariously) Ewan Campbell, whose Flight of the Killer Bee certainly had a sting in its tail.  Vividly colourful, excitingly dramatic performances of five Debussy Préludes and Stravinsky’s Petrushka completed her programme.

Amongst the wealth of chamber music on offer was an evening of works by Czech composers.  The Festival Chamber Soloists spoke the musical language of Dvorak’s String Sextet with an entirely authentic accent.  Pianist James Cheung and soprano Alison Rose followed with Dvorak’s richly tuneful Seven Gypsy Melodies, the score really blossoming in their hands.  And then in the second half came one of the most intense moments of the 2018 Festival, the searchingly intelligent performance of Janacek’s The Diary of One Who Disappeared by tenor Andrew Tortise and mezzo Madeleine Shaw.

There will be many more commemorations of the Great War this year, but surely none will be more exploratory than Sunday night’s For the Fallen, a programme which juxtaposed such diverse composers as Suk, Stuart Macrae, Butterworth and Stravinsky.  The wealth of vocal and instrumental expertise and the intelligence behind the programme’s planning made this a poignant tribute to victims of human conflict.

If you could distill the huge diversity of events into just two hours, Saturday night’s concert would do nicely.  The Minster, as full as it’s ever been with audience, musicians and volunteers, witnessed not only Sheku’s extraordinary talent in his heart-stoppingly lovely performance of Elgar’s Cello Concerto but also a thrilling interpretation of Tippett’s challenging A Child of Our Time.

If all this has whetted appetites for next year, it’s best to run to the box office as soon as the starting pistol fires. There’s no such thing as disappointment at the Southwell Festival – except when the tickets sell out.

2018 Festival Bach B Minor Mass Review

William Ruff of the Nottingham Post attended the performance of JS Bach’s B Minor Mass in the Minster on the first night of the Festival and was moved to write this piece which he has given us permission to publish here:

Festival Baroque Voices. Photo: Hannah Cooke

“Something happened in the nave of Southwell Minster on the opening night of this year’s Festival which should have been impossible. To start at the end: festivals may occasionally conclude with standing ovations but they rarely start with one. But try keeping the Minster audience on their seats after such a stunning performance of Bach’s B Minor Mass by the Festival Baroque Soloists and Voices. But what of the impossibilities which led to this? Marcus Farnsworth’s direction was as invisible as it was masterly. The more one looked the more one couldn’t see how he was doing it. The only explanation was that in rehearsal he had turned his outstanding vocal and instrumental forces into an intuitive chamber ensemble, not only producing beautiful sound individually but also listening, responding, communing with each other, subsuming their own artistry into a greater whole.


Festivals may occasionally conclude with standing ovations but they rarely start with one. But try keeping the Minster audience on their seats after such a stunning performance of Bach’s B Minor Mass by the Festival Baroque Soloists and Voices


The platform layout emphasised the approach, with instruments on one side facing vocalists on the other, able to see each other and perfectly at one in matters of phrasing, balance and timbre. Amongst the most moving aspects of the performance were the duets for two solo voices or for voice and solo instrument as individual musical talents melted into a profoundly spiritual experience infinitely greater than the sum of its parts.

Photo: Dick Makin

As far as detail is concerned it’s hard to know where to begin and end as the performers’ vision was so unanimous and rooted in complete faithfulness to Bach’s extraordinary music. There was no sense of labouring towards a pinnacle as these musicians had already arrived at the summit before a note was sounded. And there they remained, Bach’s often impossibly difficult music freely flowing in their veins. But amongst my scribblings I found myself noting the way the performers conveyed Bach’s dance rhythms and the way in which they made tiny gradations of dynamics sound so thrilling, often pressing gently on notes to squeeze out their full potential. Then there was the crystal clarity of texture throughout, as evident in the resplendent choruses as in the introspective solos. The sheer volume of sound produced by only ten singers was as remarkable as the fact that each had to move seamlessly from immersion in choral grandeur to the intimacy of the jewel-like arias.

Other highlights? The bright, buoyant opening of the Gloria; the way that musical weight was imparted to the words in phrases like in terra pax; the chiaroscuro effects of light and darkness as the Crucifixus gave way to the triumphant Et resurrexit; the explosive Amen at the end of the Credo; the glorious Osannas capping the Sanctus and Benedictus.

After such a sequence of musical and spiritual profundities delivered by some of the most expert players and singers one is likely ever to hear in this work it’s not surprising that the audience rose so spontaneously to their feet at the end. If Marcus Farnsworth and his like-minded musicians had set out to achieve the impossible, no one present in the Minster on Wednesday was in any doubt that they had succeeded.”

… Less Than Four Weeks To Go!


In only four weeks time Southwell will once again be taken over by the Music Festival’s inspiring ensemble of singers and players bringing their talent, energy and enthusiasm to the town.

More than eighty of the best professional musicians from across the UK and further afield will take part in our fifth annual festival running this year from Wednesday 22nd to Monday 27th August.

I’d like to highlight four programmes that showcase these outstanding performers:

Bach’s Mass in B minor – Wednesday 22nd August, 7.30pm, The Nave
The Festival is fortunate to attract some of the best consort singers who perform regularly with the likes of The Sixteen, The Tallis Scholars and the Gabrieli Consort.

This supreme expression of JS Bach’s genius will be given a chamber performance on period instruments with the solo and chorus parts being sung by nine members of the Festival Voices. I will be directing this performance and joining as the tenth singer.

Piano Recital by Clare Hammond – Saturday 25th August, 1.00pm, The Nave
Pianist Clare Hammond was brought up in Nottingham and has since gone on to establish a glowing reputation – winning the Royal Philharmonic Society’s Young Artist Award as well as praise from The Telegraph for the “amazing power and panache” of her playing.

Clare has developed a reputation for her imaginative concert programmes and her Southwell programme is no exception – ranging from a Haydn Sonata to Stravinsky’s Petroushka Suite by way of The Flight of the Bumblebee and several Debussy Preludes. An exciting programme with a humorous twist.

Chamber Classics: The Czech Connection – Thursday 23rd and Friday 24th August, 7.00pm, The State Chamber
This programme has everything – intimacy, lyricism and drama. It gives audiences the chance to enjoy the talent of our musicians at close quarters – in the musical conversation of Dvorak’s String Sextet, the evocative melody of Dvorak’s Gypsy Songs performed by soprano Alison Rose, and the drama of Janacek’s The Diary of One who Disappeared, which brings the opera stage into the State Chamber.

Janacek’s song cycle sets poems about a farmer who falls for and runs off with a gypsy girl. This passionate music channels Janacek’s love for his muse Kamila Stosslova – a much younger woman and another man’s wife. It is performed by two leading soloists – mezzo Madeleine Shaw and tenor Andrew Tortise.

For the Fallen: An Armistice Commemoration – Sunday 26th August, 7.30pm, The Nave
The brilliant Festival Chamber Soloists – the pick of the crop of our instrumentalists – take centre stage for this moving concert.

The first half reflects on the tragedy of war from the perspectives of Debussy, Butterworth and Josef Suk. It also includes Stuart MacRae’s setting of Wilfred Owen’s poem reworking the parable of Abraham and Isaac – in which the modern day Abraham “slew his son/And half the seed of Europe, one by one.”

In the second half we present Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale – a setting for instrumental septet and narrator of the parable of a soldier who sells his fiddle to the devil in return for unlimited financial gain.

Some tickets for these concerts are still available – either online at or by calling 0115 989 5555 or visiting the Southwell Cathedral Shop.

We look forward to seeing you next month.

southwell music festival video 2018

Southwell Music Festival 2018 Video

Public booking for the 2018 Southwell Music Festival opens on Monday 4 June (tickets via our Tickets webpage). Ahead of this we’d love to share this new video, recorded and produced by Simon Platts, which gives us a chance to tell everyone about the Festival of which we’re so proud.

Launch Concert Success

Launch Concert Success

Thank you to everyone who came to support us at our 2018 Launch Concert in April. A great evening was had by all and it was wonderful to see so many people in attendance. We had our largest audience yet for a launch event with the Nave of Southwell Minster packed with Festival supporters.

I’d like to take this opportunity to say thank you to the musicians who performed at the launch; Jamie Campbell, Simon Cox and Ruth Nelson. A special thank you goes to the Minster’s very own Director of Music, Paul Provost, who stepped in at short notice as our pianist for the evening. Paul will be opening this year’s Festival with an Organ Recital on Wednesday 22nd August.

We were also delighted to welcome Lord-Lieutenant of Nottinghamshire, Sir John Peace. Sir John has very kindly agreed to become joint Festival Sponsor with long time Festival supporter, Geoffrey Bond. We are immensely grateful to them both not only for their support as sponsors but also for their endorsement of the Festival.

Public Booking 2018 – Monday 4th June

A little reminder that public booking for the Festival beings on Monday 4th June. You can view the full programme of events and all booking details on our website here.

Stay in touch!

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I look forward to seeing you in August!