A galaxy of stars to shine at West Cork Chamber Music Festival

Declan Townsend finds the programme for the West Cork Chamber Music Festival has him feeling like a child in a sweet shop, hoping he can sample everything

A galaxy of stars to shine at West Cork Chamber Music Festival

EACH year, when West Cork Music sends me the programme for the West Cork Chamber Music Festival, I am like a child in a sweet shop, attempting to decide whether I can sample everything.

This year, the 18th festival is even better than previous years in that respect because director Francis Humphrys has persuaded so many wonderful performers to return to Bantry.

To mention just a few: Pekka Kuusisto, Nicola Benedetti, Vadim Gluzman, and Catherine Leonard are among the violinists; Angela Yoffe, Julius Drake, and Alexei Grynyuk among the pianists; and soprano Ruby Hughes among the singers. And, of course, the indispensable RTÉ Vanbrugh Quartet forms the core, the bedrock on which this marvellously successful, internationally renowned festival is based.

But it isn’t just individual brilliant performers who are returning: two quartets, Cuarteto Casals from Spain and Quatuor Danel from Belgium, are making a welcome return to join the Jupiter Quartet from America and the Kelemen Quartet from Hungary.

From Finland, Elina Vahala (violin), Christoffer Sundqvist (clarinet) and Joonas Ahonen (piano) join Pekka Kuusisto in West Cork. From Sweden comes Irish-born Kate Hearn (recorder and baroque cello) to play alongside the Hamburg-based Elbipolis Barokorchester. Frenchman, Herve Joulain (French horn) makes a welcome return, while Spanish mezzo Clara Mouriz makes her first appearance, singing music by Debussy and Berlioz as well as introducing the unfamiliar world of Spanish classical Canciones.

Perhaps the best example of the international nature of this festival’s line-up comes on Thursday, July 4. On that afternoon Dutch bassoonist Bram van Sambeek and fellow-countryman, double bass virtuoso, Nick de Groot join Finn Christoffer Sundqvist, Frenchman Herve Joulain and the Hungarian Kelemen Quartet for a performance of Jean Francaix’ Octet. This follows Nick de Groot’s solo performance of Irishman John Kinsella’s reflection on the sinking of Titanic, called 15 April 1912, and the octet precedes a Hindemith quartet played by Sundqvist, Vahala, and Ahonen (Finns) and Hungarian cellist István Várdai.

On the same evening, Brahms’ String Sextet will feature violinists from Scotland (Benedetti), Ireland (Ioana Petcu-Colan), violists from Romania (Silvia Simionescu) and the USA (Japan-born, Ayane Kosaza), with cellists Marc Coppey (France) and Leonard Elschenbroich (Germany). Benedetti and Elsenbroich, of course, have been in Bantry before, playing piano trios with their regular partner, Russian-born pianist Alexei Grynyuk. I am looking forward particularly to hearing their Sunday afternoon performance of Beethoven’s . Archduke Trio. I also look forward to hearing Grynyuk playing Enescu’s 1st suite Dans le style ancient and Romanian Rhapsody No 11 in memory of the lovely 33-year-old Romanian pianist Mihaela Ursuleasa who died last summer. She was due to return to Bantry this year.

Singers, all female, play an important role in this year’s festival. In addition to the Spanish Canciones Clara Mouriz will feature in the all-Vivaldi Coffee Concert on Thursday. Five of these Coffee Concerts, which begin at 11 each morning, feature the Elbipolis Barokorchester. On Monday, July 1, Ruby Hughes (who made such an impression last year) joins them for music from 17th century Venice and again on Saturday, July 6, for an all-Handel programme. Claire Booth joins them on Tuesday, also singing Handel, and Grammy- award-winning Deborah York sings Bach with them on Friday.

In complete contrast, Deborah York, accompanied by Julius Drake, will bring Sunday night to a close with Messiaen’s sublime Poemes pour Mi at 10.30pm in St Brendan’s Church. I am particularly looking forward, however, to Tuesday afternoon’s ‘Stars in the Afternoon’ concert in St Brendan’s Church. I have only heard the moving Five Ruckert Songs of Gustav Mahler sung by baritones, so it will be interesting to hear the performance by soprano Ruby Hughes, accompanied by Julius Drake, in a programme that also includes lieder by Schubert and Schumann.

An unusual feature of the composition of the visiting string quartets is the close relationships within them. Apart from the fact Quatuor Danel and Cuarteto Casals have been in Bantry before, they also have another factor in common: both contain siblings. The Realp brothers, Abel Tomas and Arnau Tomas play in Cuarteto Casals while Quatuor Danel, from Belgium, takes its name from the brothers, Marc and Guy Danel. As if this weren’t unusual enough, the Kelemen quartet from Hungary contains the Kokas sisters, Katalin (viola) and Dora (cello), and Katalin is married to 1st violinist Barnabas Kelemen. Furthermore, the Jupiter Quartet’s viola player, Liz Freivogel, has a sister, Megan, who plays 2nd violin in that American ensemble and she (Megan) is married to cellist Daniel McDonagh.

Simon Aspell (Vanbrugh Quartet violist) was inclined to agree with his opposite number, Jonathan Browne (Cuarteto Casals), who wrote in response to questions from me, that ‘having two brothers/sisters in a quartet has advantages and disadvantages. They speak to each other more directly and frankly, as only siblings do, but also feel more responsible for each other’. Another point both violists agreed on was why they chose to be chamber music players rather than orchestral players/teachers/soloists. Aspell simply said: ‘Oh, it was the repertoire. As a violist I could never hope to play such a variety of beautiful, challenging music elsewhere’. Browne wrote ‘above all it is the vast string quartet repertoire that made the decision for us, and the opportunity to shape our own musical destiny… we are most fulfilled by constantly (re)confronting the endless quartet repertoire.’

In Cuarteto Casals, Abel Tomas Realp and Vera Martinez swop the role of 1st violin and have always done so, Realp leading in classical works, while Martinez leads in music of later date. There are precedents — in the Kolisch and Emerson quartets for instance — but few observers find the practice satisfactory.

Aspell suggested that while a different mindset is required for each role, the difference in the tone qualities of the different players could be of assistance in differentiating styles, but he wasn’t, I suspect, convinced. All are agreed democracy prevails when decisions have to be made regarding details of balance and interpretation, Browne going so far as to write ‘we all participate, we always try everything and look for the best balance between different ideas and allow ourselves to find our musical truths instinctively.’

Both violists agreed they are happy to seek out new music and keep pieces in their repertoires when they believe the music has something important to say. I found it significant that, while each of the five quartets will play both standard repertoire and music written in the last 40 or so years at the festival, all are agreed they could, none of them, live without Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Bartok or Shostakovich.. Happily, they won’t have to during their visits to Bantry.

An affordable festival

Baroque music at the festival is a great bet for someone who isn’t sure what they’ll enjoy

The West Cork Chamber Music Festival features 31 main concerts, as well as another 37 concerts and events.

The festival offers plenty of user-friendly access points that are easy on the pocket. Each day starts with a morning talk when RTÉ Lyric FM’s Evelyn Grant interviews one of the visiting musicians or ensembles.

It’s a rare opportunity to glimpse the life of a professional musician, to get a sense of their passions and individuality. The sense of ‘knowing’ the performer when you see them in concert later can really add to the enjoyment of the music.

For someone looking for a taste of the music, the afternoon concerts by the festival’s young musicians are a good starting point. “The real chance to dip your toes in is the town concerts where people can hear the young up-and-coming musicians, and the ticket price is only €5,” says festival director Francis Humphrys.

Part of the festival’s accessibility is the door it opens for these top young musicians. “The masterclasses are a very important part of the whole festival framework. The students get five days of workshops and all they are paying is the cost of their accommodation,” Humphrys says.

It is definitely worth treating oneself to a performance by one of the main festival artists. The morning, afternoon and late-night concerts all offer excellent value. “The Stars in the Afternoons concerts are aimed at trying to get people to hear people like Nicola Benedetti and Vadim Gluzman,” says Humphrys. Among the most accessible would be Sunday’s, when Benedetti plays the music of Frank and Beethoven with her trio, and Friday’s, which features an all-Schubert programme, including a performance by the scintillating pianist Alexei Grynyuk as well as the ever-popular ‘Trout’ Quintet. “The Beethoven Archduke Trio and Schubert’s Trout Quintet, of course, will get a full house whenever we put them on: there are half a dozen or so surefire pieces like that,” Humphrys says.

Recent years have seen an explosion of baroque music at the festival, which is a great bet for someone who isn’t sure what they’ll enjoy. “The baroque music is definitely programmed to be accessible.... we now have four or five concerts a year that wouldn’t be out of place in a baroque festival in Holland or Belgium where they have them all the time. It’s certainly not hard to listen to,” Humphrys says.

Some of this year’s Baroque highlights, which feature Hamburg’s Elbipolis orchestra, include Monday’s coffee concert with soprano Ruby Hughes and Thursday’s all-Vivaldi concert featuring soprano Clara Mouriz.

The instrument-makers exhibition on Bantry’s town square is free to visit and fascinating for anyone interested in craft. This year includes three free talks by some of the makers.

- West Cork Chamber Music Festival today until Saturday, Jul 6 www.westcorkmusic.ie

— Nicki ffrench Davis

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