A piano festival such as the New Ross Piano Festival has a fascination that no comparable festival for, say, flute, violin or clarinet, would ever have.
Like most other instrumentalists, flautists, violinists and clarinettists bring their own instruments with them. Only a select few pianists do the same, and none of those have yet been heard in New Ross.
So, with many of the concerts in New Ross featuring three pianists in succession, the audience knows that each of them is dealing with exactly the same mechanism and the same acoustic. There’s no finessing of the instrument between performances. Though, obviously, whoever comes last in any particular programme has the short end of the straw, as the tuning of the piano will have soured from the workout by concert pianists.
Tchaikovsky was so concerned about forgetting to write the Seasons that he had his servant remind him, month by month, for a year
I’ll never forget that in the days when the Dublin International Piano Competition offered players a choice of instrument – Steinway or Kawai – a lot of listeners seem to have spent their time listening to the instrument rather than the player. Sure, the pianos were different, probably even more different as an experience for the players than for the listeners. But I doubt if many listeners would have had a high success rate in identifying the instruments in a blind listening test. There were extremes – of brightness and brashness, of softness and delicacy – that could be wrought from either piano.
Those kinds of extremes were well in evidence from this year’s line-up of pianists in New Ross. The evening concert on Friday was typical. Israeli pianist Matan Porat opened with the first and fourth of Johannes Brahms’s Ballades, Op 10, which he played with a forthright deliberateness which rather weighed the music down.
Ireland's Finghin Collins was joined by two French musicians, violinist Régis Pasquier and cellist Henri Demarquette, in the substantial Piano Trio that Clara Schumann composed in 1846 and which became the most performed of her works during her lifetime – she lived until 1896.
After rehearsing the trio for the first time she wrote: “There is no greater joy than composing something oneself and then listening to it. There are some nice passages in the Trio and I believe it is also fairly successful as far as form is concerned, but naturally it is still women’s work, which always lacks force and occasionally invention.”
A month later, after hearing her husband Robert’s Piano Quartet, she felt that her trio seemed “more harmless each time I play it”. And a year later, after her trio was published, and Robert had written his Trio in D minor, she described her own work as “quite effeminate and sentimental”.
The playing in New Ross was light and deft, with Collins providing a fluid background for the strings to work against. Pasquier, a veteran of French string playing, is now in his 70s and, however firm his intentions, his intonation proved variable in this work.
Barry Douglas completed the programme with Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons. In terms of piano sound he delivered a sense of scale that neither Porat nor Collins had managed. What you might call his normal speaking voice, in musical terms, was quieter than either of the others, yet he could swell to grander climaxes and also curl up quietly to whisper in your ear.
The Seasons remains Tchaikovsky’s most popular set of piano pieces, even though the composer himself is reported to have thought them “of little significance”. They were commissioned for a music journal, and the composer was so concerned about forgetting to write them that he had his servant remind him, month by month, for a year.
Douglas found character in every one of them, and his playing communicated a kind of infectious fondness that made the playing time of 40 minutes or so fly by.
The two midday recitals were highly contrasted affairs. Sae Yoon Chon, a pupil of John O'Conor in Toronto who took the top prize at last year's Dublin International Piano Competition, is as totally secure and clear-speaking as you would expect a prizewinner of any of today's international piano competitions to be.
His touches of individuality do sometimes come across as a kind of finger-pointing emphasis that’s not always persuasive in what it draws attention to. And, with the core of his programme given over to song transcriptions, it was a pity that he still sees projection as a valid alternative to cantabile. His most sensitive playing, surprisingly, came in a nicely suggestive selection of Debussy’s Préludes.
Italian pianist Maurizio Baglini is a musical shapeshifter, the kind of player whose extremes bring to mind the implausible elasticity of people and objects in the world of cartoons.
His goal seems to be to weave spells, to treat the piano as a kind of huge, black-and-white magic wand. On the one hand he can use that wand to spin out tone of such gossamer delicacy that it’s hard to imagine there was any kind of percussive impact involved in its creation. On the other, he can summon up a blazing brassiness to pin you to your seat.
Not everything he does holds together persuasively, and he left little in what he played – three Scarlatti sonatas, three of Liszt’s Paganini Studies and Robert Schumann’s Carnaval – in the exact shape the composer’s notation seems to suggest. But there was no shortage of fantasy or of technical wizardry in his playing.
Porat’s best music-making came in his late-night recital titled Lux. The lighting of the venue was brought into play so that the programme began and ended in darkness, and the music was chosen to suggest the various stages along the way. The blaze of midday sun, for instance, was delivered through Alexander Scriabin’s Sonata No 4, and the darkness after sunset provided by the opening movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata.
For the grand finale of three concertos with Camerata Ireland, the festival moved from St Mary’s Church to St Michael’s Theatre. Collins took the conducting honours and Douglas the playing honours. And, with both coming in a beautifully sprung and finely-detailed performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 2, the festival ended on a high.