This was the grand finale of the Stour Music Festival, which was founded in 1963 by the late Alfred Deller; his son Mark was the conductor for the concert. The Festival takes place in All Saints Church, Boughton Aluph, which is about five miles from Ashford in Kent; as I was warned before the concert, the church is not in the village itself, and there is no public transport so I ended up walking from my hotel in Ashford. The church actually turned out to be in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by farm buildings and fields of sheep. Admittedly I could have taken a taxi, but they are quite expensive in Kent and the walk was a great deal more fun.
Before the concert began, Mark Deller - who has been involved with the Festival since its inception, and really doesn't look old enough - explained to us why the Festival was held in such an out-of-the-way location. In the early 1960s, a friend of Alfred Deller took him into the church, which was at that point almost completely disused, and asked him to sing. Deller did so, and was so impressed with the acoustic that he had the idea of holding a music festival there. The friend who took him to the church was a talented artist, and so for several years it was a festival of art as well as music, but this is no longer the case; nonetheless it is still very much worth a visit, featuring performers of the highest quality such as I Fagiolini, Catherine King, Emma Kirkby, and the Academy of Ancient Music. Had I known all this in advance I should probably have booked for the week, but as it was I knew nothing about the Festival until I asked Charles back in March when he was next singing here in England, and he didn't know at the time who was performing in the other concerts - entirely understandable, since he was scheduled to be in Montreal all that week and therefore could not attend any of them himself.
This fact is quite significant, as it happens. Charles got back from Montreal late the previous night, and had to be at the church in the morning for a rehearsal. I was therefore expecting to see a very pale and haggard-looking tenor soloist, though I have seen him jet-lagged before and therefore knew from experience not to expect his singing to be affected. I was most pleasantly surprised to see him looking bright-eyed and healthy, and I need hardly say that he sang like an angel as he ever does, although Alexander's Feast is pretty demanding on the tenor; it is a piece which requires some quite robust and vibrant singing. Charles was well equal to the challenge, jet lag or no.
I was also impressed with the other two soloists, neither of whom I had heard previously. Faye Newton is a very good soprano with a beautiful, limpid, expressive voice; it is not often I am struck by a soprano's tone colour, but I was on this occasion. Benjamin Bevan is a young bass who is pretty good and will, I think, improve still further; he could perhaps have been smoother in places, but there was no doubt that he was putting all his heart and soul into his singing, and that counts for a great deal. Both the choir and orchestra were excellent, and I think Mark Deller should take his fair share of the credit for that, since his direction was spot on.
In short, it was marvellous all round. If I lived closer to Kent, I'd be delighted to attend the Stour Music Festival regularly; as it is, Sheffield is just a little too far away for comfort (it took me seven hours to get home the following day) and it is an expensive journey. It's actually cheaper for me to go and hear Charles sing in the Netherlands. But if you happen to live in the south of England, then it's an event to put in your diary, because if this is the standard of the whole Festival it is a superb annual treat.