Bantry’s variations on a theme at chamber music fest

Welsh soprano Ruby Hughes specialises in early music
Welsh soprano Ruby Hughes specialises in early music

Bantry’s chamber music festival has all combinations: string and brass soloists, pianists, and even a quintet,says Declan Townsend.

FOR music lovers who are curious about what treats a chamber music festival can offer, the brochure for Bantry’s 19th such festival is a good place to start. Booking for the festival has begun. Which events will attract most early interest? Will it be the recitals by the four, professional string quartets: Vanbrugh/ Danish/Zemlinsky/ Doric? Or will listeners be seduced by the astonishing variety of other attractions that West Cork Music Festival’s director, Francis Humphrys, has dreamed up for this year? In addition to the string quartets, Concerto Copenhagen early music group, Young European Strings, and the eleven string soloists, I counted two brass soloists, three woodwind players, five vocalists, seven pianists and 69 events. The pianists will be making music with others: as duos (the great Irish favourite, Philippe Cassard, joins pianist Cedric Pescia, from Switzerland, for an all-Schubert programme on Saturday afternoon, June 28); as accompanists for the singers; and in ensembles (duos, trios, quartets, and quintets).

An example of Francis’ unusual, intriguing programming is Sunday night, 29 June, when Julius Drake joins the Doric string quartet in Erich Korngold’s ‘Piano Quintet’. Leonard Bernstein once introduced a work by Korngold by quoting an American music critic, who had written that “Korngold’s Violin Concerto contained more corn than gold”, but Bernstein added that “the concerto and its composer are remembered, but even the critic’s name has been forgotten.”

The festival, this year, has more vocal music than usual. Following the marvellous performances of Schubert’s ‘Winterreise’ and ‘Die Schone Mullerin’ song cycles, which we have heard in recent years, another great song cycle, Schumann’s magical ‘Dichterliebe’, appears in this year’s programme, on Monday, June 30. Julius Drake, no stranger to Bantry, will accompany the young Canadian baritone, Philippe Sly, in this masterpiece, the pair of them having performed Mahler’s wonderful ‘5 Ruckert Lieder’ in the Saturday evening, June 28, concert.

Ruby Hughes, from Wales, and Maria Keohane, from Sweden, are two sopranos who specialise in early music. Both will be heard in the Coffee concerts on Sunday, June 29 and Thursday, July 5, singing with Concerto Copenhagen. In addition, Maria will sing songs by Dowland and Purcell, on Tuesday morning, while Ruby, together with Julius Drake, will give the Crespo recital at 4.00pm that afternoon, singing songs by Mahler, Schumann, James MacMillan and Schoenberg.

Soprano Allison Bell will come from Tasmania to sing five settings of Seamus Heaney’s poems by the Belfast composer, Deirdre Gribbin as well as John Tavener’s setting of WB Yeats’ poem ‘To a child dancing in the wind’ on Monday, June 30, as Sly and Drake perform ‘Dichterliebe’. Gribbin has written for voice, trumpet, harp and string quartet, while Tavener’s song calls for an accompanying group of viola, flute, and harp.

! Ailish Tynan brings Ireland into the July 4, Crespo recital at 4.00pm. Accompanied by Joseph Middleton, she will sing Aaron Copland’s ‘12 Poems of Emily Dickinson’ and Samuel Barber’s ‘5 Hermit Songs’ to celebrate America’s national day. Then, she will sing the only song composed by James Joyce, ‘Bid adieu to Girlish Days’ (piano accompaniment by Edmund Pendleton) and finish her programme with a Kerry folksong, ‘My roving Dingle boy’, collected and arranged by EJ Moeran, who died in Kenmare in 1950. In addition to the vocal music, the early music (and, yes, Pachelbel’s famous ‘Canon’ will feature on Tuesday morning), and the solo/sonata performances, we will be treated to a wealth of piano trios/quartets/quintets, as well as string quintets, sextets. Also, we will have the rare opportunity of hearing Beethoven’s ‘Septet’ for violin, viola, cello, double bass, clarinet, horn and bassoon. Among the sextets is Schoenberg’s ‘Verklarte Nacht’, which I first heard, late at night, played by the Summer School tutors, in the magical surroundings of a Harry Potter-like school.

At the core of the festival, however, are the string quartets, both student and professional. Four, lucky student quartets (one being prize-winners from London’s Royal Academy of Music) will benefit from the masterclass tuition offered throughout the week by the soloists and professional quartet members, before their Young Musicians Platform, on Saturday, July 5, at which they will perform quartets by Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Beethoven.

The four professional quartets come from Ireland (Vanbrugh), England (Doric), Czech Republic (Zemlinsky) and Denmark (Danish). All of them have special works to play: e.g. Janacek’s ‘Kreutzer Sonata’ (Doric), Debussy’s only quartet (Vanbrugh), Mendelssohn’s heart-breaking ‘quartet in F minor’ (Zemlinsky), and Brahms’ ‘Clarinet Quintet’ (with Julian Bliss), by the Danish Quartet. Also, each will perform one of Beethoven’s final quartets at the Late Great Shows, beginning at 10:30pm on Saturday, June 28, Sunday, June 29, Wednesday, July 2 and Thursday, July 3. In addition, Zemlinsky quartet will play ‘Quartet No 13’ and (with José Gallardo) ‘Piano Quintet No 1’, by their fellow-countryman, Antonin Dvorak. It is always interesting to hear players perform music from their own countries, so listeners will, no doubt, take particular interest in the approach of the Danish Quartet, who will play music by their fellow-countrymen, Hans Abrahamsen (b. 1952) and Carl Nielsen.

On Saturday, June 7, music lovers in Cork can help the festival raise funds for the Vanbrugh Scholarship Fund (which supports the student quartets) at the annual Vanbrugh and Friends Fundraising Concert in Aula Maxima, UCC.

* Brochure and booking: www.westcorkmusic.ie or West Cork Music, 13 Glengarriff Road, Bantry.

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