Sounds to thrill the ear

THIS was the question asked of Francis Humphrys, the artistic director of the West Cork Chamber Music Festival, by the French horn virtuoso, Herve Joulain.

Sounds to thrill the ear

I first heard Joulain in Bantry in 2008. As usual, Francis has marvellously challenging, unusual works for him to play, all of them written in the 20th century. I resent waiting until July to hear them. Only one of them, Jean Francaix’s Octet (written for the same instruments as Schubert’s gorgeous Octet), is familiar to me. The others include Ligeti’s Homage á Brahms trio for violin, horn and piano, Belfast-born Howard Ferguson’s Octet, and Olivier Messiaen’s Appel Interstellaire.

This brief, brilliant masterpiece is the 6th movement, for solo horn, from Messiaen’s huge orchestral work, Des canyons aux étoiles, first performed in 1974. The concert will be in memory of the late owner of Bantry House, Egerton Shelswell-White. Without the vision and generosity of this self-effacing, trombone-playing, gentle man, the festival might never have happened. Coupled with Messiaen’s mind-blowing piece is Tchaikowsky’s 3rd string quartet, the slow movement of which is marked ‘Andante funebre e doloroso’, appropriate to this first late-night concert of the 18th festival.

The festival programme is its usual, eclectic mix of new and old music, by composers born between 1567 (Claudio Monteverdi) and 1976 (Pekka Kuusisto), and this excludes the four young composers. The programme is 109 works, by 60 composers, and 36 concerts in three venues: Bantry House, St Brendan’s Hall, and St Brendan’s Church. In addition, Evelyn Grant will be in the Brick Oven Bistro at 10am every day, interviewing the artists. Masterclasses, by the five professional quartets to four student quartets, will be held at the same time in the Maritime Hotel.

The festival concerts cater for every taste in art music, whether it be ‘early music’, classical music, Romantic-era music, music of the last 100 years, or a mixture. Also, it’s not just string quartets by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, et al: singers, solo instrumentalists, duets and trios for various combinations rub shoulders with string quartets, quintets, sextets, octets and chamber orchestras. The concerts take place at a bewildering variety of times. The ‘coffee concerts’ take place at 11.00am and contain easy-listening music, with the emphasis on Baroque. The exception is Wednesday’s concert, when cellist, Marc Coppey, plays Kodaly’s marvellous solo cello sonata, and the Kelemen Quartet play the 3rd quartet by their Hungarian compatriot, Leo Weiner.

The programmes for the ‘Stars in the Afternoon’ concerts, mainly in St Brendan’s Church, are exceptionally varied. On Saturday 29, at 3pm, it is Britten — all three string quartets. All the others are at 4pm, and Sunday brings Cesar Franck and Beethoven’s Archduke Trio. Monday mixes Mozart with the Turkish composer, Ahmed Saygun, and Shostakovich’s great friend, Weinberg. Tuesday brings Ruby Hughes singing German lieder, and Clara Mouriz sings songs by the Spanish composers, De Falla, Turina, Ernesto Halfter (1905-1989) and Xavier Montsalvatge (1912-2002), on Wednesday. On Thursday, John Kinsella’s intriguing response to the sinking of the Titanic (for solo double bass) precedes the Francaix Octet and a quartet by Hindemith, while Friday brings Schubert’s Impromptus and the evergreen ‘Trout’ Quintet.

Between the ‘coffee’ and ‘stars’ concerts there are ‘town concerts’, mainly at 2pm in St Brendan’s Hall. These feature the student quartets, the subjects of the masterclasses. On Monday, Jul 1, the Young European Strings perform Bartok’s Divertimento and the Serenade for Strings by Josef Suk, Dvorak’s son-in-law. Then, on Tuesday 2, the Belisama Piano Trio plays music by Arvo Part, Dvorak and Nadia Boulanger.

The evening concerts and the late night (10.30pm) concerts vary between Bantry House and St Brendan’s Church and are varied in personnel, style, repertoire, and period. For example, the final item of the ‘opening concert’ on Friday, Jun 28, is the premiere of John Kinsella’s 5th String Quartet, while on Tuesday, Jul 2, the lovely Romanian pianist, Mihaela Ursuleasa (1978-2012), who thrilled Bantry audiences in 2008, will be remembered in a concert that includes music by her illustrious compatriot, George Enescu, JS Bach (the great Chaconne BWV 1004), and Shostakovich, as well as Brett Dean’s Epitaph and Benjamin Britten’s 3rd Cello Suite, the one that includes the great Russian Orthodox kontaktion, the Hymn of the Departed.

While the main evening concerts will feature great masterworks by composers of earlier eras, eg Schubert, Brahms, Bach, Mozart, and Tchaikovsky, alongside established 20th century masterworks by Shostakovich, Bartok, Prokofiev, and the remarkable composer/conductor/virtuoso violinist and pianist, Enescu, much of the music will be by lesser-known composers of the 20th century.

I had not heard of the names of some of the composers of these works, until I got this year’s brochure. Nevertheless, I eagerly await the Irish Chamber Orchestra’s Sunday night concert, which includes music by Veress (1907-1992) and Tuur (born 1959), alongside Arvo Part’s deliciously contemplative Tabula Rasa and Britten’s Les Illuminations, almost as much as I look forward to Tchaikowsky’s Souvenir de Florence sextet on Friday, Jul 5.

* Booking is now open at West Cork Music, 13 Glengarriff Road, Bantry, Co Cork. Tel: 027-52788. Fax: 027-52797, or LoCall 1850 788 789. Online booking:

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