Irish composers unveil devilish and gripping new works in Bantry

West Cork Chamber Music Festival heard pieces by Deirdre Gribbin and Seán Doherty

The West Cork Chamber Music Festival opened on Friday with a new work by Deirdre Gribbin, commissioned for the centenary of the Battle of the Somme. Gribbin's great-uncle Freddie Mitchell fought in that unthinkable battle and survived long enough to return to Belfast, where he succumbed to the effects of mustard gas poisoning.

Gribbin's new piece, Devil's Dwelling Place, is for solo violin. Its title is a reference to the strategically important Delville Wood (Bois d'Elville), which the troops referred to as Devil's Wood. You may not know the name, but there's a fair chance you have seen photographs of it in its war-ravaged, midsummer state: razed ground, with leafless, branchless trees sticking up like giant stubble.

Devil's Dwelling Place opens with the faintest of sounds. The violin is so heavily muted, it registers at first as if from a great distance, before its quicksilver repeated arpeggios and trills grow in strength and violence. As they do, they morph into a semblance of a pained human voice, calling out in troubled octaves. Nurit Stark's playing had extraordinary narrative power, as if she were reliving some traumatic experience to feed into her performance. The work ends with a prolonged tension between upward and downward tendencies, and the last phrase disappears in an aura of high, soft peace.

Seán Doherty's newly commissioned Lament for the Poets is a response to the Easter Rising, setting poems by Lola Ridge, Marianne Moore and Francis Ledwidge for soprano (Caroline Melzer) and string quartet (Vanbrugh Quartet). Doherty's work is conceived in terms of theatre, with an agitation in the writing that almost seems to challenge and query the words, sometimes as if neither is able to accept or reject them.


He even has a section of Moore's Sojourn in the Whale spoken officiously by the four members of the quartet in ostentatiously British accents. The singer makes a dramatic exit after the second poem and after a discordant postlude returns slowly, her voice a mere whisper.

Melzer and the Vanbrughs did everything that was asked of them with the utmost conviction and the whole was unfailingly gripping.

Fastidious style

One of the more unusual presences at the festival is the Borusan String Quartet, a group founded in 2005 “under the guidance of Maestro Gürer Aykal”. Aykal is a Turkish conductor who is the musical director and principal conductor of the Borusan Istanbul Philharmonic Orchestra. His fastidious conducting style was heard in Ireland in 1980, when he conducted the then RTÉ Symphony Orchestra in a European Broadcasting Union concert that also included a Spanish soloist (clarinettist Adolfo Garcés) and a work by a Norwegian (Harald Saeverud’s Symphony No 7).

The Borusan Quartet, a pleasingly fine-grained ensemble, was heard in three works over the weekend, two of them by fellow Turks, both of whom were part of a group known as the Turkish Five. These were composers who were sent to Paris in 1928 to study and then come back and kick-start a new tradition of western music in Turkey.

Ahmed Adnan Saygun (1907-91), who also collaborated with Béla Bartók on the great Hungarian composer’s research into Turkish folk music, wrote his First Quartet in 1947. Ulvi Cemal Erkin (1906-72) wrote his sole Quartet in 1935-36. Both works show folk influences, with Saygun’s being the more adventurously dissonant, Erkin’s the more ear-catchingly folksy. It’s an interesting reflection on the state of Irish music that over one weekend the country’s leading chamber music festival included as many Turkish works from the 1930s and 1940s as it has had Irish works from those same decades since its foundation in 1996.

The Borusan also offered Grieg’s Quartet in G minor, a work that seeks almost orchestral sonorities and seems almost too fond of its material to do much more than state it over and over again. The Borusan’s well-controlled performance showed a keen awareness of the music’s problems without finding a viable solution to them.

Young composers

The presence of older Irish music may always have been lacking in Bantry, but the living have always been better catered for, not least through the annual competition that brings performances and tutoring to four young composers wanting to write string quartets.

The scheme is tied in with the festival’s masterclass programme, with each of the young quartets who get tutoring from the festival’s ensembles and soloists being allocated one of the young composers’ quartets to work on.

Gribbin was the composer in charge of this year's workshop, investigating the issues raised for both composers and performances by the new pieces. I've been to a number of these sessions over the years, and Gribbin's interventions on Saturday brought more changes to the performances (by the Behn, Hydra, Elm and Beara quartets) than any other I can remember. I can only hope that the four composers were as impressed as I was. Victoria Johnston's Transience made the strongest impression.

The standout performance of the weekend was a work that was being heard for at least the fourth time during this festival's history, Bartók's Contrasts, which was written for the composer himself to play with his great friend, Hungarian violinist Joseph Szigeti, and clarinettist Benny Goodman. The performance, by Tamsin Waley-Cohen (violin), Annelien Van Wauwe (clarinet) and Cédric Tiberghien (piano), was as light and transparent as any I've heard. Tiberghien's sensitive holding-back of the piano part gave his partners a dynamic freedom that made the music sound as fresh as the day it was written.