The West Cork Chamber Music Festival’s Covid solution

Review: Bantry seems unlikely to run out of bright ideas while Francis Humphrys is running the show

Austrian composer Franz Joseph Haydn (1732 - 1809)

Late last year Francis Humphrys, director of the West Cork Chamber Music Festival, opted for a daring solution for the 2022 festival, which opened on Friday, June 24th, and ended on Sunday, July 3rd. His motto could best be explained as “Go big!”. He planned more concerts, on the basis that a larger number of events in restricted seating scenarios — he added some new smaller spaces — would allow for social distancing, if necessary.

The current wave of Omicron infections is affecting the arts every bit as much as international travel and the hospitality sector. There were performers who never made it to Ireland at all, others who got infected while here, and the festival schedule was disrupted by outright cancellations and had to engage in rejigging of various kinds to keep the core as intact as possible.

Every one I spoke to about it was delighted that the festival was back in the flesh after a three-year gap, and I heard few complaints about the choices everyone had to make in a festival that for the first time presented clashing events. Difficult choices had to be made, certain composers and performers to be embraced, others to be rejected.

The big thinking extended much further than the sheer number of events. There was a complete survey of Haydn’s ground-breaking 1772 set of six String Quartets, Op. 20, given by the Signum Quartet. I attended the first of the three concerts, found the musical approach rather heavy-handed, and gave the others a miss.

Belgium’s Quatuor Danel gave the 17 string quartets (1937-86) by Warsaw-born, long-time Moscow resident Mieczysław Weinberg (1919-96), a close friend and musical ally of Shostakovich. Weinberg’s musical world is that bit blunter than Shostakovich’s, his harmony often more dissonant, his melodic writing sometimes oddly unalluring.

The Danels are pioneers of this repertoire — they have recorded the entire cycle — and their live performances are now much more extreme and intense than their recorded versions, made between 2006 and 2009. Their playing is now both more aggressive and more delicate, more spotlit and more subdued, more likely to saturate and smudge the heaviest dissonances and chill the stillness of the sparest writing.

The result is a presentation like a roller-coaster ride, high-adrenaline emotional rushes interspersed with moments of slightly disturbing calm. I didn’t get to all their concerts, but at every one I went to I wished for the relief of more varied programming. The 90-minute plus all-Weinberg programmes didn’t quite work for me.

The other major string quartet cycle was of Bartók’s quartets, given by the Doric Quartet. I heard four of the six, and the impression created was of extremely linear thinking which highlighted contrapuntal clashes at the expense of harmonic logic, and also diluted the innate Hungarian flavour. I was reminded of Hungarian pianist Andor Foldes’s recounting of playing Bartók’s Piano Sonata for the composer, only to be chided not to play it in such a “Bartókian” manner.

New works I heard included Finola Merivale’s The silent sweep as you stand still, a pandemic-imposed, belated live premiere by Mairéad Hickey (violin) and Ella van Poucke (cello) of a work written in locked-down Paris. The piece opens desolately, gradually accumulates energy until the instruments collide and feed off each other before returning to the mood of the opening.

Deirdre Gribbin’s new Dark Matter Hunting (Doric Quartet) is a musical response to “scientific investigations and speculations surrounding Dark Matter and its existence,” an area of interest for the composer over the two decades since she met astrophysicist Priya Natarjan in Cambridge. The work essays the challenge of translating visualisations of gravitational forces into the timbres and linear tensions of the string quartet, a fascinating exercise in colouristic exploration.

Other memorable concerts included two of Dvořák’s piano trios played with stylish élan by members of the Pavel Haas String Quartet and pianist Boris Giltburg, the pianist who this year most fully embraced the light and shade and give and take of chamber music, the ability to fill out a texture without being noticed, to project a key line without forcing, and to warm the heart with unforced grace. Violinist Veronika Jarůšková and cellist Peter Jarůšek also played Dvořák as to the manner born.

Mezzo-soprano Lotte Betts-Dean and pianist Joseph Havlat gave an absorbing account of Messiaen’s awe-inspiring song cycle Harawi, always distinctive, pointed and consistently beautiful in vocal tone.

And harpsichordist Malcolm Proud also warmed the heart with the first book of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, in sober, clean-limbed playing that was meticulously unshowy but at the same time gave the impression of leaving nothing unsaid in the music. He also usefully played some of the preludes and fugues on a chamber organ, when he judged that the sustained tone of the organ was required by the music.

A complete performance of Biber’s remarkable late 17th-century Rosary Sonatas — probing, sometimes fantastical pieces that require a set of differently-tuned violins to be performed in sequence — was one of the projects that had to be cancelled even before the festival started. It’s already been rescheduled to next year. As ever, Bantry seems unlikely to run out of bright ideas while Humphrys is running the show.

Michael Dervan

Michael Dervan

Michael Dervan is a music critic and Irish Times contributor