Kilkenny Arts Festival brings Beethoven to life

New director Eugene Downes has put classical music back at the heart of the festival, and in fine style

Pianist Barry Douglas’s gutsy playing was often an edge-of-the-seat experience

Pianist Barry Douglas’s gutsy playing was often an edge-of-the-seat experience

Wed, Aug 20, 2014, 01:00

It was like old times at Kilkenny Arts Festival. The new director, Eugene Downes, put classical music right back at the heart of this year’s festival, and he did it in style. He invited Britain’s Heath Quartet to perform the complete string quartets of Beethoven, and Barry Douglas to perform all five of the composer’s piano concertos, directing Camerata Ireland from the keyboard.

Downes is now best-known for his role in establishing Culture Ireland as a force to be reckoned with in promoting Irish arts and culture abroad. After his abrupt exit from Culture Ireland, he chose to follow his passion for opera, and set about an ultimately fruitless plan to reignite the creation of a national opera company. His preferred mechanism appeared to be to take over Opera Theatre Company and somehow reverse-engineer it into a new, national company.

The Kilkenny festival seems a much better match for his talents, and it clearly doesn’t preclude him from getting involved in opera; witness this year’s concert performance of Handel’s Acis and Galatea by Christian Curnyn’s Early Opera Company. I didn’t get to hear that, because it clashed with Heiner Goebbels’s I Went to the House But Did Not Enter at the Happy Days festival in Enniskillen. The expectation is that opera will feature more strongly in future Kilkenny festivals.

One of Downes’s often overlooked career moves was a stint as a radio presenter in the early days of RTÉ Lyric FM, where, in addition to talking about opera, he hosted a Saturday record-review show. If memory serves, on that show he talked about opera like an expert and about most other music like an enthusiast.

Experts don’t always manage to see the wood for the trees, and when it comes to the world of professional opera, Downes may well have been blinded to reality – the State and the Arts Council’s deep-seated indifference to opera – by the urgency of the need he feels for Ireland to have a national company. In Kilkenny, on the other hand, he seems to have seen a clearly deliverable goal, a statement that would grab anyone’s attention. He certainly achieved that with no fewer than 13 concerts of Beethoven in his first year.

When I arrived in Kilkenny last Friday for the first of the final weekend’s quartet concerts, I encountered an atmosphere that definitely had something of the air of pilgrimage about it. People were aware that hearing all of the Beethoven quartets over 10 days was a rare opportunity. The journey was clearly special for both performers and listeners.

The Heath Quartet’s approach was beautifully scaled to the small size of St John’s Priory. The players’ tone was mostly light, their vibrato often sparing, their textures clear, their expressive manner showing a neutrality that tended towards understatement.

They excelled in the giddy instability that Beethoven loved to play around with in Scherzo movements, and wherever delicacy was called for, they were in their element. The weightier aspects of the music were less consistently well-served, although the epic that is the Grosse Fuge was handled with grit and determination.

There was something altogether more elemental in Barry Douglas’s approach to the piano concertos at St Canice’s Cathedral. Douglas gave less the impression of trying to keep the music in control than of giving himself up so that he could be controlled by it. You could call the Heath Quartet classical in their approach, and Douglas romantic. But to my ears, he sounded, well, Beethovenian in a way that seemed to elude the quartet.

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