Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Chateau Queille revisited

Chateau Queille, the Cathar stronghold hidden in the hills of the Midi Pyrenees

Friday evening: overture and beginners
The soft wind brushes the field grasses into silvery rivulets as we drive along the high narrow road from the hamlet of St Quentin La Tour, and then take the steep tree lined track down the hillside until we see the sign marked Parking. We gently steer the car through the narrow gap and there, across the meadow appears the familiar yet always magical sight of Chateau Queille perched on its rocky promontory, above the oxbow of the river.  In the foreground is a wonderful red and white, twin topped circus tent, with clusters of traditional caravans around.

We are back, for our eighth Queille Festival (Q9), the extraordinary gathering of music, food, friendship created by Rachel Lethbridge that has taken place every alternate year since 1999.  There is a smell of crushed mint and fresh cut grass as we step out of the car, and make our way in the early evening sunshine across the mole hills, carrying cameras and the extra layers of clothing that will be needed for post concert drinks and canapés on the terrace.
The festive Big Top
At every visit there is something new to surprise us. This time we find that the rickety rackety Billy Goats Gruff wooden bridge across the river – closed to vehicles many years ago – has been replaced by a smart new concrete structure, with tarmac surface and iron railings either side. In fact the whole track has been resurfaced up to the chateau and chapel and beyond. The river appears different too, and we learn that a severe storm last year took down many trees, eroding one side of the river and changing the shape of the meadow.  We recall a previous rain soaked Queille festival when the river threatened to engulf the old bridge, cars got bogged down in mud and electrical sockets disappeared under several centimetres of water.  But nothing dampens the spirits of Queille Festival goers, so the show went on, performers reading scores by candlelight to an audience wearing wellington boots, cagoules and cheerful smiles.

Back to the present.  We climb the terraced hill to the grassy area in front of the chapel where tonight’s concert will mark the start of Q9. There is a babble of greetings and exuberant reunions. A bevy of youthful volunteers dispenses Gayda wines, beer and elderflower cordial from the bar set up in a cavern in the rockface. The chapel bell rings and we make our way into the 11th century  building, collecting the 60 page programme packed with information (compiled by musicologist and composer David Byers) about the delights to come.
The Navarra Quartet at full speed
The Navarra Quartet opens proceedings with verve, their dynamic rendering of the young Ravel’s String Quartet in F Major giving energy even to the most travel weary in the audience. Pianist Tom Poster changes the pace with Schumann’s Walszenen Op 82 (Forest Themes), but then takes us back to the pulsating rhythms of Ravel with a breathtaking performance of La Valse. Composed by Ravel for the Ballet Russes, Diaghilev described it as a masterpiece but not a ballet when it was played to him in its original two piano version in 1920. Ravel never forgave him. 

This virtuoso version, transcribed for solo piano, is rarely performed because of its technical difficulties – difficulties which Tom Poster seems effortlessly to dismiss as he fills the chapel with the glittering notes of an Imperial Ballroom full of whirling dancers, oblivious to the thunderous rumblings of the Great War that is about to change their lives. A very rare treat for us all.

Today’s haiku
Raveling wild tapestries,
eyes meet, fingers flex.
We are caught, breathless.