My own three-day slice of Cheltenham began with a summoning of bells in high Poulencian style – the 1950s Sonata for Two Pianos played by Joseph Tong and Waka Hasegawa. This duo must have muscles of steel for the kind of mega-programme they were offering. Theirs was hardly the usual morning aperitif in the fabulous Pittville Pump Room, approached in my case via the most heavenly rus in urbe walk imaginable across the lawns and around the lake of the Pittville Estate from the peaceful Townhouse just within the boundaries of spa-exploiter Joseph Pitt’s once-exclusive Elysium. The first half alone also embraced Britten’s surprisingly monumental Introduction and Rondo all Burlesca, the obliquely charming miniature childs play of Dai Fujikura’s brand-new Three Miniatures – this has been quite a year for him already – and Grainger’s epic ramble through Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, showing an equal master’s touch in the playful transcription of “It Ain’t Necessarily So”.
Tong and Hasegawa are well-matched: he excels in the Russian-school thunder, she in the clarion carillons at the top of the register. Their Rite of Spring was well-tempered and always clear-textured, if not cumulatively overwhelming. Balm came with the encore – Poulenc’s ravishing but simple Élégie, a piece I fell in love with only a few months ago and little thought I’d hear in live performance so soon. Poulenc’s proposed cognac on the piano and a cigar in hand would have to be imagined for health and safety reasons, quipped Tong, but the nostalgic tribute to a lost friend certainly touched the necessary depths.