I prefer the early stuff: West Cork Chamber Music Festival goes back in time

The early-music strand of this sprawling festival is substantial enough to bear comparison with specialised events elsewhere

Swedish soprano Maria Keohane: gets to the heart of everything with unfailing potency and point. Photograph: Anna Thorbjörnsson

Swedish soprano Maria Keohane: gets to the heart of everything with unfailing potency and point. Photograph: Anna Thorbjörnsson

Wed, Jul 2, 2014, 01:00

The sheer scale of the West Cork Chamber Music Festival is always challenging to come to terms with. There’s music from morning to night, and the early-music strand, which is the focus of most of the 11am concerts in St Brendan’s Church, is itself substantial enough to bear comparison with the specialised early-music festivals that take place every autumn in Sligo and east Cork.

There’s a very real sense in which early music has for many listeners become the new music of the age. If you don’t like the direction that the work of living composers has taken, you can always find novel experiences in the ever-expanding attention that’s being paid to the music of the past.

The players improvise and embellish in ways that are closed to them in Beethoven and Brahms, as they relive a time when composers expected creative contributions from performers rather than a faithful reproduction of exactly what was written on the page. And for the average music lover, as opposed to the early-music aficionado, many of the composers themselves are new names, whose work can be as full of surprises as that of the new names of the 21st century.

Historically informed performances aim to provide a stimulating musical experience even when the music itself is not of the highest intrinsic interest. And in a way that’s exactly the same deal that saw some of the greatest virtuosos of the romantic age make an impact in music that was little more than a vehicle for their virtuosity.

The music offered by Concerto Copenhagen at St Brendan’s Church on Sunday morning was anything but anodyne. The programme featured the Prologue to Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo, sung by no less a figure than La Musica (Swedish soprano Maria Keohane); and the gorgeous love duet Pur ti miro, which closes his L’Incoronazione di Poppea (Keohane and British mezzo soprano Ruby Hughes).

The music of Monteverdi remains a high-water mark for making the most out of relatively simple means. In musical terms he has the gift of a Shakespeare for encapsulating his vision in unforgettable turns of phrase, of making the whole world turn in a trice, through a shift of melody or harmonic progression. Keohane and Hughes got to the heart of everything with unfailing potency and point.

Much of the rest of the programme was given over to early sonatas for three violins, works that showed all the excitement of composers (Buonamente, Marini, Fontana) exploring new terrain, and ended with Uccellini’s Aria Sopra la Bergamasca, a lullaby full of pain that in Keohane’s treatment was as probing in expressive detail as it was restrained in musical material.

I had been looking forward to Sunday afternoon’s offering of Schubert piano duets by Philippe Cassard and Cédric Pescia. Schubert, like Mozart before him, and Brahms and Dvorak after him, left a fine selection of masterpieces in what was one of the most popular forms of domestic music-making. It is a form that festival director Francis Humphrys has shown very little interest in over the years, in spite of the quality of the repertoire. Humphrys, rightly or wrongly, has never seen solo piano music as having much of a place in a chamber music festival, and putting two people at one keyboard doesn’t seem to excite him very much either.

Sadly Cassard and Pescia failed at the first hurdle on Saturday afternoon. Their playing was often too loud. Piano duettists are capable of making quite a racket unless they keep themselves under tight control. Containment is needed if the results are not to sound riotously bright and brassy.

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