A vocal masterclass lifts West Cork Chamber Music Festival

Mark Padmore’s singing is riveting, with an exceptional sense of intimacy and adaptability

The highlights of last week's West Cork Chamber Music Festival were vocal. And English tenor Mark Padmore was responsible for both: Schubert's Winterreise and Janacek's Diary of One Who Disappeared.

The Winterreise had the dubious advantage of being given on a grey, wet and dismal Irish summer's night and the disadvantage of being placed at the end of an overlong programme. The already lengthy programme advertised originally had two pieces added to it, bringing it to nearly three hours in length.

In truth, I suspect Padmore's Winterreise would have triumphed no matter what the circumstances. The superlative "riveting" is often used in critical, but it truly describes the effect Padmore has on his listeners. Partly it has to do with the exceptional sense of intimacy he creates. It's as if he can stand on a stage and communicate privately with all the individuals in front of him, and communicate in such a way that no one wants the channel to be disrupted by any physical movement or hint of noise.

Both Winterreise and The Diary of One Who Disappeared deal with love: the Schubert in a darkly romantic, death-urging, unconsummated way, the Janacek quite differently – the love is requited, a child is born but the lovers have crossed social boundaries that force their departure from the community.


Beauty and pliability

The wonder of Padmore’s singing is not to do with beauty of tone, although there is plenty of that. It’s to do with the pliability of line, an expressively driven adaptability that doesn’t pull the music out of shape.

His grip seemed flawless, too, in Janacek, where the vocal writing is altogether more speech-oriented, often more declamatory than songful. The Diary of One Who Disappeared is not a solo cycle. Anna Reinhold was a rather hard-toned solo mezzo soprano and the trio Voice (Victoria Couper, Clemmie Franks and Emily Burn) a gorgeously blended Three Women.

Julius Drake's piano playing in the Janacek was a bit of a mystery, sometimes sensitive, sometimes so over the top it was as if no piano on earth could have delivered the ferocity of sonority he seemed to be seeking. Paul Lewis was a totally hand-in-glove partner in the Schubert.

The festival's other major song cycle was by György Kurtág, his mid-1980s Kafka Fragments, for the unusual combination of soprano (Caroline Melzer) and violin (Nurit Stark), with both voice and instrument driven to extremes by Kurtág's super-intense musical compression. Melzer and Stark performed like musicians possessed.

The festival brought other performances where the intensity seemed less warranted. The Chiaroscuro Quartet, led by Alina Ibragimova, simply wore out Schubert's Death and the Maiden quartet by the emphatic nature of their approach; and the leader's domination of the ensemble was not a bonus in two quartets from Haydn's Op 20 set.

The Georgian pianist Tamar Beraia showed big technique and an enviable command of colour. But her musical vision seemed unduly narrow. Her heavy-duty fingerwork made parts of Fauré's Piano Quartet in G Minor sound as if they might have been written by Prokofiev, and she made Prokofiev's own Toccata sound like overblown bombast.

Nothing but Beethoven

Ibragimova was heard at her best in a programme that offered nothing but Beethoven, the neat sequence of the String Quartet, Op 95 (strongly done by the Vanbrugh Quartet), the Violin Sonata in G, Op 96 (where the sweet-toned, sensitive violinist Tamsin Waley-Cohen was undermined by Beraia), and the Archduke Trio, Op 97, with cellist Pieter Wispelwey and pianist Cédric Tiberghien balancing Ibragimova's probing playing to perfection.

It was a thoughtful gesture to present three consecutively numbered works by Beethoven in sequence, even if the sequence of the opus numbers does not actually represent the order in which the pieces were written.

Pieter Wispelwey offered a morning solo cello recital that steered away from the name of Bach, but not from the composer's spirit. Wispelwey included two of Reger's Solo Cello Suites of 1915, works that are impossible to imagine without the cello suites of Bach, whose patterns are almost traceable as a template against which Reger was working. And the Dutch cellist cheered up those in the audience who could hear his spoken introduction, which delved into the compositional strategies behind the second of the three suites Benjamin Britten wrote for the great cellist Mstislav Rostropovich.

Swiss composer Ernest Bloch has only had some of his smaller, better-known pieces played in the festival's 21 years. So the inclusion of two substantial works from the 1920s, the Violin Sonata No 2 (Poème mystique) and the Piano Quintet No 1 (1924), was welcome. Bloch is celebrated for the declaration of his Jewish heritage in his music, and the Piano Quintet, with its striking use of quarter tones, made a strong impression in the performance by Nurit Stark and Mairéad Hickey (violins), György Kovalev (viola), Monika Leskovar (cello) and Cédric Pescia (piano).

Next year’s festival will be very different to this year’s, given that, after leader Gregory Ellis’s retirement, the Vanbrugh Quartet will no longer be quartet in residence.

An even bigger change is under way, as plans for the festival to develop its own venue, on the harbour, opposite the Maritime Hotel, are still in train.

No timescale is yet available for the development, although no one who is a fan of Bantry House as a venue need fear for the future. Concerts in the house are intended to continue. The West Cork Chamber Music Festival is now one of Europe’s largest, with the programme running to 72 events spread over nine days. It simply wouldn’t be possible for one venue to service all that music-making.

  • mdervan@irishtimes.com