Spoilt for choice at West Cork Music Fest

This year’s West Cork Chamber Music Festival promises to be the best ever, writes Declan Townsend.

THE more I studied the brochure for the upcoming West Cork Chamber Music Festival in Bantry (June 27 to July 5), the more my jaw dropped.

It isn’t just the choice of music, or even the quality of the performers who are coming to play or sing — it is the extraordinary variety of what is on offer that is astonishing.

Naturally, one’s choices depend on many factors — time, preferences, etc — but I suspect the temptations festival director Francis Humphrys has dreamed up this year are going to cause many headaches among Bantry-bound music lovers.

Typical of these temptations are the opening and closing concerts. The opening event features three of the four professional quartets playing music by Abrahamsen, Janacek, and Debussy, plus an Israeli/Swiss violin and piano duo playing a sonata by Busoni.

The final concert is equally diverse in character. Opening with a solo cello suite by Britten and three songs with viola, it leads to Brahms’ ravishing Op 91, two songs for alto, viola and piano. This is followed by Glazunov’s genial two-cello string quintet (imitating Schubert) and then six of the brilliant soloists who have enthralled audiences during the week combine to play Brahms’ 2nd String Sextet.

How does one decide? Much depends on whether one’s preferences are for early, vocal, solo instrumental, or ensemble music because each taste is catered for and within each category there is great diversity. Five of the seven Coffee Concerts (at 11am in St Brendan’s Church) feature both vocal and instrumental music from the Renaissance (Monteverdi, Buonamente, et al) to Baroque (Vivaldi/Handel/Bach).

Among the soloists appearing with the ebullient Danish early music specialists, Concerto Copenhagen, singers Maria Keohane (Sweden) and Ruby Hughes (Wales), trumpeter Sebastian Philpott (England), recorder player, Kate Hearne (Ireland), and violinists Frederik From (Denmark), plus Russian-born Alina Ibragimova.

My own choice of these mouth-watering morning concerts would be the Wednesday concert, when cellist Alban Gerhardt will play two (No 4 in E flat and No 6 in D) of Bach’s incomparable Suites for Solo Cello.

I have a magical memory of Rostropovich playing these in a church — no applause allowed — at the Edinburgh Festival many years ago. At the end of the recital the audience just stood — and stayed standing — refusing to leave, until he had returned eight times to the platform to acknowledge their silent approval.

I urge internet-savvy readers to check Alban Gerhardt’s blog. It gives a wonderful insight into the ‘missionary’ impulse in so many of today’s artists to share their gifts with the young, the poor and the disenfranchised. I particularly love Gerhardt’s statement: “I don’t want to grow old in a society without culture.”

Gerhard is just one of the 28 solo artists, singers, pianists, wind, and string players who, along with the ensembles who will entertain, educate, and enthral audiences during the nine days and nights of the festival.

I particularly look forward to hearing the Israeli violinist Nurit Stark (with Swiss pianist, Cedric Pescia) playing sonatas by Busoni and Enescu, and finishing with the Valentyn Silvestrov’s wonderfully Romantic ‘Post Scriptum’ Sonata.

High on my list also are Gergana Gergova, the Bulgarian leader of the renowned Lucerne Strings, who will perform Kodaly’s great Duo with Alban Gerhardt; also, Alina Ibragimova as soloist in Chausson’s dreamy Concert in D, and, especially, Carolin Widmann playing Bartok’s magnificent Sonata for solo violin and the Etudes I — III by her brother Jorg Widmann (current artistic director of the Irish Chamber Orchestra).

Probably the most intriguing of all the recitals by string players, though, is the Crespo Recital Series concert on Thursday afternoon in Bantry House. At 30pm Lawrence Power, the smiling Welshman whose viola playing captured many hearts on his last appearance, and pianist Simon Crawford-Phillips will begin a marathon. Together, they are going to play five masterworks by Brahms — two Sonatas for viola and piano (the ones that clarinettists claim also), followed by the three marvellous violin sonatas. Requiring enormous powers of concentration from both performers and listeners, this promises to be a treat of a lifetime.

Along with Alban Gerhardt, two other solo cellists, Scot, Philip Higham and 27-year-old Scandinavian prodigy, Andreas Brantelid, are going to be busy during the week. Higham, who plays on a Stradivarius cello, will be one of those performing Beethoven’s Septet in the Thursday concert in St Brendan’s Church. Also, he will start the Finale on Saturday(July 5) playing Britten’s Cello Suite No 1 in addition to joining the Vanbrugh Quartet later for the Glazunov Quintet.

Brantelid’s first appearance at the festival will be on Tuesday night (July 1) when he will join Alina Ibragimova and brilliant French pianist, Cedric Tiberghien, for the Late Great Show in Bantry House, playing Schubert’s huge Piano Trio in E flat. On the following day, he joins Argentinian pianist José Gallardo in St Brendan’s Church for another in the Crespo Recital Series, playing Scandinavian music by Peder Gram, Edward Grieg and Percy Grainger.

Brantelid will also be one of the six playing Schoenberg’s Verklarte Nacht string sextet in Thursday night’s main evening concert.

* See: www.westcorkmusic.ie

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