Quartets come to the fore in Bantry

The West Cork Chamber Music Festival’s creative approach and warm welcome continues to draw performers of the highest calibre, writes Jo Kerrigan

THIS year’s West Cork Chamber Music Festival in Bantry, which runs from June 28 to July 6, will feature more than 100 musicians. The organisational skills required for an event of this kind are immense. Festival director Francis Humphreys and his team work round the clock, arranging everything from accommodation to transport. It’s all part of a festival which is renowned both for the quality of its music and the friendliness of its hosts. No wonder it draws visitors from all over the world.

Chamber music was designed to be played in intimate surroundings, originally a palace chamber where a king and his closest confidants could enjoy its strains in relaxed privacy. It’s music among friends. And that makes it ideal for West Cork and the gracious surroundings of Bantry House. The string quartet was created for such intimate settings, and, fittingly, this year’s festival is particularly rich in string quartets, with Bantry welcoming not only the Vanbrugh, but also Cuarteto Casals, Kelemen, Quatuor Danel, and The Jupiter.

Music lovers hardly need introduction to the RTÉ Vanbrugh Quartet, original founders of the festival. Now, in its 24th concert season, one of Europe’s most successful ensembles, it is internationally recognised for its beauty of sound, clarity of texture and integrity of interpretation. Based in Cork as resident quartet to RTÉ, its members are also artists-in- residence at UCC. Recent album projects include Metronome’s second CD devoted to the music of Piers Hellawell, a Black Box release of Ian Wilson’s three quartets and a recording for Hyperion of works for quartet and soprano by John Tavener. In the much-anticipated opening concert of this year’s festival, the Vanbrugh will play the world premiere of John Kinsella’s Quartet No 5.

Cuarteto Casals, Spain’s first string quartet with a truly international profile, was created in 1997 and since then has gone on to win awards worldwide and appear at the most prestigious concert halls. To date the quartet has compiled a substantial discography of nine CDs with the Harmonia Mundi label, with a wide-ranging repertoire. They have accompanied the King of Spain on diplomatic visits and, enviably, performed on the peerless collection of decorated Stradivarius instruments in the Royal Palace in Madrid.

The Kelemen Quartet, founded in Budapest in 2009, has already gained a reputation as one of the most exciting young groups around, its performance described as electrifying and vividly interactive. All four of the Kelemen Quartet’s members are prize-winning musicians, with leader Barnabás Kelemen, and viola player Katalin Kokas both professors at Budapest’s Franz Liszt Music Academy. Their debut CD, featuring works by Bartók and Mozart, was released on the Hunnia label in 2012.

Since their formation in 1991, the Quatuor Danel have been a major force on the international chamber music scene. More than 80 concerts per annum have taken the quartet to the great concert halls of the world from its base in Brussels. Renowned for their bold, concentrated surveys of the quartet cycles of Beethoven, Schubert, Shostakovich, Weinberg, Bartók, they are also proud of their many collaborations with major contemporary composers as well as with the rising stars of the 21st century. Russian repertoire has always been one of Quatuor Danel’s special strengths, and its most famous recordings include the complete Shostakovich and Weinberg quartets.

The Jupiter String Quartet from Boston, formed in 2001, is a particularly intimate group, consisting of Nelson Lee on violin, sisters Megan and Liz Freivogel on violin and viola respectively, and Meg’s husband Daniel McDonough on cello. He claims he originally wanted to be a violinist, but ended up on the cello because the organisers of his first strings programme (he was just five at the time) declared he had better hands for the cello. “I suspect they may just have needed more cellists,” he says.

While enjoying the opportunity to work with living composers, the Jupiters still feel a strong and fundamental connection to the core string quartet literature, particularly those works of Beethoven and Bela Bartok. Constantly travelling and playing across the world, they are looking forward very much to performing in West Cork and taking part in such an intensive celebration of chamber music.

“We are particularly excited to be included in a roster of such distinguished artists and to participate in concerts that are curated in such interesting and creative ways,” says Daniel McDonough. “We will be excited, too, to meet up with some old friends, like Jonathan Brown from the Cuarteto Casals Quartet, and exchange all the news. Hopefully we will find some time to explore that amazing West Cork countryside.”

Festival director Francis Humphreys is pleased with the rich programme they have put together for this year.

“The string quartet stands at the heart of all music, not just of chamber music,” he says. “Almost every great composer from Haydn to the present day has set down his innermost thoughts in quartet form and the vitality of this extraordinary repertoire is borne out by the huge numbers of young quartets that are not only formed each year but go on to carve out successful professional careers.”


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