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

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.

The two players alternated between top and bottom parts, and although the dynamic control was best when Cassard was at the bass end and Pescia at the top, even then there was often too much sound being produced. Inevitably, it was the quietest passages that sounded best, and they certainly contained tantalising suggestions of what these two players might achieve with a more restrained approach. But, to borrow a word from a conversation I had with someone about a different concert, the duet playing was a bit shouty.

Cassard was on good form in Ravel's always mesmerising Piano Trio (with violinist Alina Ibragimova and cellist Alban Gerhardt), and Pescia showed his worth in the rarely heard Violin Sonata in E minor by Busoni, where his partner was violinist Nurit Stark. Busoni, although now best remembered for his piano arrangements of Bach, was a great thinker and a great keyboard virtuoso. As a composer he wanted to reach back into the past to travel into the future, and his music mixes elements of frivolity and earnestness and embraces his mixed German-Italian heritage in ways that pose huge problems for performers.

Pescia and Stark (I put them in that order because the piano part is often so dominant) kept everything in fluctuating balance in a way that seemed to allow free rein to the composer’s many personas.

Stark and Pescia also tackled the Third Violin Sonata by George Enescu, an intricate fabrication of faux Romanian folk music, which is notated with a kind of micro-detail that's intended to result in a free-flowing, almost improvisatory manner in performance. On this occasion the intended looseness of effect was replaced by a perfection of enunciation that simply never seemed free.

The Bantry experience

String quartets are at the heart of the Bantry experience. The Vanbrugh Quartet – no longer associated with RTÉ – sounded fresher than usual in Debussy. The Danish Quartet traversed a veritable lexicon of modern quartet-writing in Hans Abrahamsen's Ten Preludes and played late Beethoven (the Quartet in A minor, Op 132) with exceptional poise. The Zemlinsky Quartet from Prague played Mendelssohn (the Quartets in E minor, Op 44 No 2 and in F minor, Op 80) with rare refinement. And the much lauded British group the Doric Quartet, took on Janacek (Quartet No 1) and Korngold (the over-the-top Piano Quintet in E, with pianist Julius Drake) without seeming to find their groove in either work.

In memory of Heaney

The Vanbrugh featured in two works by Deirdre Gribbin at a Seamus Heaney memorial concert on Monday, Island People with soprano and trumpet, and Anahorish with soprano and harp. In spite of the sterling contribution of soprano Ann De Renais and the atmospheric instrumental writing – the muted trumpet was particularly effective – I was anything but persuaded by the connection between music and words.

The Yeats settings of To a Child Dancing in the Wind by the late John Tavener – who, like Heaney, featured in the very first festival in 1996 – are much simpler, much more word-focused than the Gribbin, with harp, flute and viola often providing a simple brush-stroke style of background. Soprano Katharine Dain was pure and heart-piercing, singing as if the music might have been written just for her.

mdervan@irishtimes.com

Michael Dervan

Michael Dervan

Michael Dervan is a music critic and Irish Times contributor

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