A world of chamber music

ONCE again, Francis Humphrys has succeeded in attracting a host of wonderful performers to Bantry for the West Cork Chamber Music Festival, which begins on Friday.

While some are Irish, the majority are visitors, coming from as near as Wales and as far away as New Zealand. In all, 15 different nationalities will be represented at this year’s event. Of the 26 soloists, 14 are returning artists, performers who made such an impression in previous visits that Humphrys was determined to have them back again.

Cristina Zavalloni, whose versatility amazed all who heard her singing Monteverdi and Schoenberg in 2008, is one such artist. An Italian mezzo soprano, she is equally at home in early music, contemporary music, and jazz. This year she will sing Monteverdi on Sunday morning (Jul 1) and Britten on the following Tuesday.

Another singer who made an enormous impression last year was tenor Robin Tritschler. The Bray man is particularly remembered for his performance of Schubert’s Die Schone Mullerin with pianist Graham Johnson.

This year the pair are performing the same composer’s overpowering Die Winterreise on Thursday July 5. Johnson, widely acknowledged as one of the great Schubert scholars of our age, is also recognised as a worthy successor to his mentor, the great Gerald Moore, and inherited most of Moore’s annotated, well-marked vocal scores.

Watching the recent BBC Young Musician series on TV reminded me that outstanding cellist Natalie Clein, who won the competition in 1994, will be performing in three different recitals, each displaying a different facet of her enormous talent. On Sunday, Jul 1 she will play composer-in-residence, Thomas Larcher’s Sonata for Solo Cello. On Monday afternoon, pianist Larcher will join her, playing his own ‘Mumien’ as well as music by Schumann and Schubert’s gorgeous Arpeggione Sonata. Finally, on Tuesday morning, she will play two of Bach’s unmatchable Cello Suites.

There are two other links with this year’s BBC competition. Charlotte Bray, whose Verre de Venise will be performed by Robin Tritschler, Paavali Jumppanen and the RTÉ Vanbrugh Quartet, was an adjudicator in this year’s final. So was Huw Watkins, brother of conductor Paul Watkins, who won it in 1988. Paul will conduct the Irish Chamber Orchestra in Tuesday night’s concert in St Brendan’s Church.

This concert will also feature English viola virtuoso Lawrence Power, Irish violinist Catherine Leonard, Chinese/American percussionist Ji Hye Jung and Cristina Zavalloni.

Power, who in his 20s decided not to accept an invitation to lead the viola section of the Berlin Philharmonic, but to pursue a career as a soloist/chamber musician, will play in five different recitals. Leonard will collaborate in three recitals with Ji Hye Jung’s marimba (playing a Bach transcription in one of these) and in another with Hugh Tinney. In the latter they will continue their exploration of Beethoven’s violin and piano sonatas, this time playing No. 9 in A, the ‘Kreutzer’.

Making welcome returns to Bantry also are two soloists who formerly played together in the world-famous Rosamunde Quartet that thrilled listeners in 2008. These are violinist Andreas Reiner and cellist Anja Lechner. While they will only play one recital together, joining forces with pianist Peter Nagy, both will be intensely busy in Masterclasses, coaching young players. Also, Lechner will join the RTÉ Vanbrugh Quartet for the final work in this year’s musical feast.

Each year, Francis Humphrys introduces virtuoso players whose names have not yet become familiar in Ireland — and they never disappoint. This year we are going to hear the German violinist, Tanya Becker-Bender, whose first recital on the opening day will comprise Paganini’s 24 Caprices Op 1, incredibly virtuosic showpieces that only the very best players can successfully perform.

I suspect that Becker-Bender, having played with such luminaries as Gidon Kremer, is just such a player. Later in the week she will play Bartok and Respighi sonatas with New Zealand-based pianist Peter Nagy and join forces with Lawrence Power, Andreas Brantelid (cello), and Axa Competition winner, Antti Siirala to play Faure’s exquisite Piano Quartet.

The 25-year-old Danish cellist, Andreas Brantelid, made his debut with the Royal Danish Orchestra at the age of 14. He will be kept busy in Bantry, playing in four different ensembles.

Polish virtuoso Ewa Kupiec will also be in Bantry, as will Olga Solovieva from Russia. Solovieva’s principal role last year was as an ensemble member and her chameleon-like ability to adapt to each different group made a huge impression. This year, as well as coaching, she will perform Schumann’s entrancing Papillons Op.2 on Saturday. Another visiting pianist is Julius Drake, whose excellent lieder and song recordings with tenor Ian Bostridge are a joy.

He will accompany Welsh soprano Ruby Hughes in songs by Schumann and George Crumb, as well as folk songs arranged by Benjamin Britten.

Lovers of Early Music are again well catered for this year in the 11am Coffee Concerts. Swedish soprano Maria Keohane, Irish recorder virtuoso Kate Hearne and Cristina Zavalloni are just three of the artists who will be joining the renowned Polish Arte del Suonatori ensemble in music by Purcell, Handel, Monteverdi, and Vivaldi.

I look forward also to the playing of returning wind players, William Dowdall (flute), Carol McGonnell (clarinet), Ivan Podyomov (oboe), Peter Whelan (bassoon), Herve Joulain (French horn) and newcomer, Finnish clarinettist Christoffer Sundqvist.

Their programme of familiar and less well-known works brings wonderful variety to this festival and adds enormously to its appeal.

Of course, the festival is centred on the brilliant string quartets that Humphrys brings to join the Vanbrugh each year. This year, the ‘youngest’ is the Apollon Musagéte Quartet, from Poland, formed four years ago but already winners of many prizes. By way of contrast, the highly regarded German Signum Quartet was formed in 1994.

The members of the Chiaroscuro Quartet, formed in 2005, come from Russia, Spain, Sweden, and France. Regular festival-goers will surely remember the riveting Bach playing of their charismatic leader, Alina Ibragimova, on her last visit to Bantry in 2009.

There are 107 reasons to attend this year’s festival, the first being Szymanowski’s 1st quartet and No 107, Schubert’s C major Quintet, which closes another feast in the glorious setting of Bantry House.

* The West Cork Chamber Music Festival runs from Jun 29 to Jul 7. 027-52788 or 1850-788789. www.westcorkmusic.ie.

* The Irish Examiner will blog live from the festival via Irishexaminer.com

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