Chamber of delights in Bantry

THE 2014 West Cork Chamber Music Festival more than maintained Bantry’s place on the music map with nine days of wonderful concerts.

One of the key events was A Poet’s Life, celebrating the poetry of Seamus Heaney, Heinrich Heine and WB Yeats. It was dedicated to the memory of recently-deceased writer Dermot Healy. Deirdre Gribbin’s ‘Island People’ had the Vanbrugh Quartet and Sebastian Philpott on trumpet providing muted atmospheric soundscapes that were full of life to three of Heaney’s poems. Particularly enjoyable was ‘Lovers on Aran’ for its echoes of sean nós singing, and Gribbin’s ‘Anahorish’ for string quartet and harp which followed also had a traditional modal colour.

French-Canadian bass-baritone Philippe Sly gave an arresting performance of Schumann’s ‘Dichterliebe’ accompanied by Julius Drake at the piano.

Where some singers wear a mask of exaggerated emotions, Sly inhabits from the inside, the character’s eyes looking out through his with minimal drama and to maximum effect.

John Tavener’s unusual setting of poems by WB Yeats closed the concert. The instrumentation of harp, viola and flute was magical though his setting of the texts feels sometimes awkward and counter to their inherent musicality. The 10 poems are beautifully threaded together with harp harmonics and British soprano Katharine Dain showed such guts and heart in her performance that the audience enthusiastically rose to their feet to applaud her.

In her recital the following afternoon, soprano Ruby Hughes introduced us to Scottish composer James MacMillan’s setting of three poems by William Soutar. It is stunning music and very moving.

Concerto Copenhagen period ensemble was in residence for the week and each morning they played they left audiences brimming with enthusiasm. The Vivaldi programme included the Concerto in D major RV 212 featuring violinist Fredrik From as soloist. It is full of extraordinary cadenzas which bring the violin into the stratosphere and beyond, and From seemed to pass through virtuosity and into an angelic realm, while playing with incredible variety of character. It must have seemed to From on the stage that he was playing to a photograph of an audience, such was the stillness and silence among the capacity crowd which erupted into cheering when he had finished.

At the heart of the festival, and what sets it apart from musical events from one end of the year to the next, are the stellar ensembles of visiting artists put together on a once-off basis.

On Thursday night we heard Beethoven’s ‘Septet in Eb’ led by violinist Gergana Gergova and including world-renowned clarinettist Julian Bliss. One of the great composer’s most light-hearted works, it was treated to a feather-light laid back performance that was full of sheer joy. If only doctors could prescribe such an experience as an anti-depressant.

After the interval we heard the stunning ‘Concert in D major’ for piano, violin and string quartet by Chausson. A big hit, it saw violinist Alina Igbramova and Cédric Tiberghien on piano join forces with the Doric String Quartet. From introverted duo sections to lush orchestral gestures, it was a performance full of complex emotion and raw expression.

Friday’s late night performance of Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet was another festival highlight, with Julian Bliss joining the Danish Quartet. The level of musicianship, the blending of tone and unity of gesture between the five was astounding.

The final afternoon of the festival gave the four young musicians’ quartets a performance platform after their week of intense masterclasses with visiting artists and the inspiration of world-class concerts. All four groups played superbly, with assurance and flair, promising us a new generation of brilliant chamber musicians.

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