Pitched to highest standard

West Cork Chamber Music Festival broke attendance records for its 37 concerts over nine days in Bantry, says Declan Townsend

Pitched to highest standard

OF the 37 concerts performed in Bantry between Jun 29 and Jul 7, I heard 12, all of them in the evenings.

I heard 41 of the 109 works performed at the festival. I marvelled at the stamina of the regular festival-goers who attended more than 30 events, and who discussed with enthusiasm and knowledge what they had heard.

Audience members are not afraid to tell the performers if they are pleased or not, and the performers seem to enjoy such encounters. The performers like the intimacy and friendliness of the festival.

This friendliness, says festival director, Francis Humphrys, makes performers return to play for such appreciative, discerning audiences.

Recession or no, audience numbers at this year’s festival have broken previous box-office records. Thanks to RTÉ Lyric FM, many of the concerts had an audience of seven million through the European Broadcasting Union. That exposure, from previous festivals, has brought tourists and music journalists from Germany, Holland, France, and Britain, Canada and the US. The Minister for Tourism, Leo Varadkar’s opening address emphasised the contribution of festivals to the national economy.

The Polish Apollon Musagéte Quartet, formed five years ago, is critically acclaimed. It was interesting to hear them in the company of the two long-established quartets, the Signum Quartet, from Germany (formed 1994), and the RTÉ Vanbrugh (formed 1986). Tchai-kowsky’s 1st Quartet (with its gorgeous Andante Cantabile) and Shostakovich’s 4th were the only works they played from the ‘standard’ repertoire. The others were by Polish composers of recent times, Szymanowski (d.1937), Gorecki (d. 2010), Bacewicz (d. 1969) and 79-year-old Penderecki.

Their cellist is the only one who is seated when playing and the quartet performs with great power and intensity; and with a fine sense of drama. This was evident in Gorecki’s Quartet No.1 Already it is Dusk, a work full of terror and little consolation. Gorecki’s Symphony of Sad Songs was in vogue at the end of the 20th century, but this work is, for me, far too barbaric, primitive and lacking in artistic subtlety.

In contrast, Penderecki’s 3rd Quartet, written in 2008, combines gravity, terror, lyricism, folk-song, and mystical, magical use of harmonics in a work of great beauty. Ewa Kupiec joined the quartet for Bacewitz’s Piano Quintet. While this also contains primitive passages, it is atmospheric, colourful, cheeky, and successfully alternates solemnity with excitement. It is easy to understand the success of Apollon Musagéte.

I only heard the Signum quartet twice. On the first occasion, they played Schumann’s 2nd quartet in F with a warmth of tone, affection for the music, and unanimity of expressiveness that was of the highest international quality. Clarinettist, Christoffer Sundqvist joined them on the second occasion, playing Weber’s marvellously entertaining Quintet for Clarinet and Strings. The playing was superb, all of the players revelling in this perfectly imagined work.

RTÉ Vanbrugh Quartet played in six evening concerts. In Deirdre Gribbin’s What The Whaleship Saw, they painted intense sound pictures at almost inaudible dynamic levels, using the highest possible pitches to capture the horrors of whalers turning cannibal following the wreck of their ship by a whale. Although it was brilliantly played, I cannot pretend that the music moved me. Charlotte Bray’s Verre de Venise, a setting for tenor, piano, and string quartet, of French poetic fragments by the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, moved me greatly ... to anger. Why a composer should write music that is so at odds with the text is beyond my comprehension. I faithfully followed the text, sympathising with Robin Tritschler as he coped with the unvocal sounds he was given, but I gave up in despair. I understand from other listeners, who made no attempt to understand the poetry, that the music was not unpleasant.

The Vanbrugh’s first contribution to the festival was an impeccable, perfect performance of Mozart’s extraordinarily exposed Quartet in D, K.575. It immediately reminded me of just how good this quartet is. Only in their final appearance, playing Schubert’s String Quintet in C, with cellist Anja Lechner, did they fail to move me as they usually do. On the evening when they were joined by viola virtuoso, Lawrence Power, for Brahms’ String Quintet in G, we heard what was, arguably, the very best music-making of the week.

Power was the soloist, with the Irish Chamber Orchestra (conductor, Paul Watkins), for Still, for viola and chamber orchestra by composer-in-residence, Thomas Larcher. This is a quite extraordinarily effective work, full of surprises, now manic, now quiet and introspective, then giddy, or terrifying, Hitchcockian, but never dull. The composer knows what he is doing and Still is worth hearing many times. Power also played two very different sonatas, Brahms’ Sonata in F minor, with Antti Siirala, and Shostakovich’s incredibly moving final composition, the Viola Sonata, with Paavali Jumppanen, and each was a masterclass in duet playing.

Larcher featured as composer in other concerts also, one in which Natalie Clein gave an astounding exhibition of technical brilliance in the Sonata for Solo Cello that he wrote for her, and another, in which the Vanbrugh attempted to make sense of his IXXU for string quartet.

In his programme note, Larcher wrote of the difficulty he had in completing this work. Perhaps, having heard it, he may withdraw it, as it does not do justice to his imagination or reputation.

As well as Tanja Becker-Bender, of whom I have written in a previous report from the festival, and Lawrence Power, there were so many brilliant soloists in Bantry this year that it is difficult to describe in words.

Among the most memorable, for me, were Robin Tritschler and his accompanist, Simon Lepper. Their dramatic interpretation of Schubert’s Winterreise was enormously satisfying.

Christoffer Sundqvist (clarinet) and Paavali Jumppanen (piano) created the most incredible effects, sounds, and excitement in Fagerlund’s Sonata. Whether the work has musical, as opposed to technical, value, I do not know, but it is incredibly, enthrallingly exciting. Ji Hye Jung (marimba) made wonderful music with Fiona Kelly (flute), playing Piazzola, and Andreas Brantelid (cello), playing Golijov. Perhaps the most genuinely intriguing, entertaining music heard in the festival came from Ewa Kupiec (piano), playing Kodaly’s Dances of Marosszek, or the sextet of William Dowdall (flute), Ivan Podyomov (oboe), Carol McGonnell (clarinet), Hervé Joulain (horn), Peter Whelan (bassoon) and Paavali Jumppanen, (piano) playing Poulenc’s Sextet in the final concert.

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