Bantry’s classical attraction

The West Cork Chamber Music Festival has a truly international appeal. Declan Townsend reports

THE West Cork Chamber Music Festival should surely have the word ‘International’ inserted in its title. More than 90 musicians from 14 countries will gather at this year’s festival, which begins on Friday, June 24, and they will perform music from 17 countries. If these statistics don’t suggest that this is an international festival, I don’t know what does.

The Bantry festival has given Irish music lovers the opportunity of hearing musicians that we might never hear otherwise, principally because of Francis Humphrys’ seemingly insatiable appetite for worthwhile new music. His curiosity and taste for adventure has brought him to concert halls, recital rooms, and festivals throughout Europe (all at his own expense) and the result has been a constant stream of exciting performers coming to Bantry. Some are on the threshold of a career, others are known principally in their own countries, and, occasionally, we have had the opportunity of hearing world famous performers simply because of the reputation this unique festival has acquired.

String quartets have always been at the core of the festival, which grew out of performances by the RTE Vanbrugh in Durrus. The Vanbrugh have continued to anchor the festival. This year they are joined by quartets from France, Germany and the United States. The longest established is the Auryn Quartet from Germany, whose members met when they were string principals in the European Union Youth Orchestra. They came together as a quartet in 1981, won international prizes in 1982, and have been playing together since. Three years later, the Vanbrugh Quartet was formed. The career of the Pacifica Quartet, Illinois, began in 1994 and, like the Auryn and Vanbrugh quartets, they also won major prizes and established an international reputation. The newest quartet, being only 12 years in existence, is the Quatuor Diotima, four ex-students at the Paris and Lyon conservatories, whose successes in international competitions and interpersonal chemistry has enabled them, also, to establish an enviable European reputation.

Good interpersonal chemistry is, arguably, the most important element in successful chamber music ensembles. There being no room for ego in the relationships, each player has to accept his/her colleagues with the same degree of trust as exists in successful marriages.

Between them, these four ensembles will play 15 of the most popular quartets in the repertory at the festival. Additionally, they will introduce new quartets, works not heard in Bantry before. They will also play in quintets, octets, and a nonet, as well as coaching three young ensembles, the Benyounes Quartet, the Cosini Piano Trio and the Kappa Quartet.

In terms of intimacy, the piano trio probably rates next to the string quartet, with one significant difference: three soloists, who are friends, can come together occasionally (as did Thibaud, Casals, and Cortot) and make great music, something quite impossible for any worthwhile interpretation of the quartet repertory.

At this year’s festival, superstar Nicola Benedetti is, once again, joining her friends, cellist Leonard Elschenbroich and pianist Alexei Grynyuk, to play Rachmaninov’s great Trio Elegiaque and, together with violist Amihai Grosz, they will also play piano quartets by the great friends, Brahms and Schumann. Twenty-nine-year-old Tai Murray, possibly the best-known African American violinist, will make her Bantry debut playing Brahms’ Horn Trio with the great French horn player Herve Joulain and Russian pianist Olga Solovieva, who made a great impression last year. Olga will also be heard in Faure’s gorgeous piano quintet, playing with RTE Vanbrugh quartet.

Later in the week Tai will play Ravel’s Piano Trio in A minor with Christian Poltera (cello) and returning pianist, Mihaela Ursuleasa. Last here in 2008, Mihaela has since recorded the Shostakovich cello sonata with the ‘cover-girl’ of that festival, Sol Gabetta.

Each year, young, brilliant violinists arrive in Bantry and, having thrilled listeners with their playing, they afterwards prove remarkably friendly and accessible to anybody who wishes to talk to them. This is one of the many features that makes visitors return again and again to Bantry. I am particularly looking forward this year to hearing French player, Fanny Clamagirand, performing Mansurian’s Violin Concerto with the Irish Chamber Orchestra on Tuesday evening and Ysaye’s second solo violin sonata in A minor on Wednesday.

Another violinist whose performances with Barokksolistene take place at the popular Coffee Concerts at 11.00 each morning is the Norwegian, Bjarte Eike. Determined to demystify early music, he has gathered around him a group of like-minded players from orchestras around Europe and they play not just the thoughtful, ‘serious’ music of the 17th and early 18th centuries, but also the dance music that has been written down, from all over the continent. These ‘Ale-house concerts’ have been greeted with great acclaim. It will be fascinating to hear their collaborations with recorders, flutes, horn, oboe, bassoon, harpsichord, and soprano in music by Telemann, Handel, Bach, and Vivaldi.

The 22-yar-old British clarinettist, Julian Bliss, has not alone established an international reputation as a soloist and ensemble player; he has also re-designed the clarinet! He convinced Leblanc to make and market a clarinet that differs considerably from that which they have been producing for over a century. Julian will play the Mozart Clarinet Quintet with the Auryn Quartet on Wednesday morning, as well as playing in a sextet by Boris Tchaikowsky, Schubert’s Octet and a Nonet by Onslow. Also playing in the Onslow is Ivan Podyomov, the 25-year-old Russian oboist, described by many as a phenomenon. Having heard him on YouTube, I am not surprised at the description.

Among the dozens of other musicians whose performances I eagerly anticipate is the doyen of English accompanists, Graham Johnson, who will accompany tenor, Robin Tritschler, in Schubert’s Die Schone Mullerin on Friday, July 1, at 4.30pm. Lovers of piano music will not want to miss the performances of the Frenchman, Cedric Tiberghien or the Romanian, Mihaela Ursuleasa. Tiberghien, 2nd prize-winner in the 1994 Dublin AXA competition, plays Ravel and Liszt at 10.30 on Monday night while Ursuleasa plays Enescu and Schubert on Wednesday night.

The one I am most looking forward to is Australian composer-in-residence/viola player Brett Dean. He will open the festival, performing his own composition, Intimate Decisions, and play in Mozart’s String Quintet in D with the Vanbrugh, as well as leading the Young Composers Forum on Sunday afternoon. He will also participate in the Schubert Octet.

He and the Vanbrugh (as usual) will be the busiest people in Bantry during the festival.

Picture: Violin superstar Nicola Benedetti is once again joining her friends, cellist Leonard Elschenbroich and pianist Alexei Grynyuk, to play Rachmaninov’s great Trio Elegiaque

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