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West Cork Chamber Music Festival review: Mesmerising Schubert, achingly beautiful Beethoven and lovely Smetana

The Signum Quartet and the Chiaroscuro Quartet were the weekend’s highlights

The Chiaroscuro Quartet provided a weekend highlight. Photograph: Eva Vermandel

West Cork Chamber Music Festival

Bantry
★★★★☆

Schubert wrote his first string quartet around the age of 13. It’s a work that I never expected to hear in concert. It’s not the creation of a Mozart or Mendelssohn-like child prodigy. It has its moments, but overall it’s more a mess than a masterpiece, ideas sometimes thrown together, as if there were no real intention to organise them, perhaps because the creator had difficulty continuing where he had previously left off.

It’s the kind of piece you come across in complete editions, or cycles, whether recorded or live. So, what was it doing opening an otherwise Schubert-free concert by the Signum Quartett at St Brendan’s Church in Bantry on Sunday? The answer is simple. The context was elsewhere.

The Signum also appeared in the opening concert at Bantry House on Friday, where they had played Schubert’s last string quartet, the one in G major, D887, that came after the Death and the Maiden Quartet, and which has always been overshadowed by its more famous and, it has to be said, more straightforward predecessor.

The piece is long (1577 bars to Death and the Maiden’s 1424, not taking repeats into account), and the disparity in playing time is even greater than those tallies would suggest. The Signum’s approach was utterly mesmerising in its unfailing clarity. Their music-making was soft-spoken, each instrumental line distinct, the players happy to present sections of the work through the slenderest threads of sound and in a range of highly expressive tone colours that simply aren’t achievable at higher volumes.

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The delicacy ensured that nothing had to be overstated, the flourishes of intense tonal richness were never strained. And the intricacy of detailing in their playing was almost a wonder in itself. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a performance of this work that was as consistently and totally engaging as this.

And the connection to the 13-year-old’s quartet? The juxtaposition highlighted the many gestures that the teenager was already trying to express, even though he hadn’t yet found his way to doing it. It was all inside him from the start.

The weekend’s other highlight was another string quartet, Beethoven’s late Quartet in B flat, Op. 130, the one that originally ended with the outrageously complex Grosse Fuge, which Beethoven chose to replace with a simpler movement. It was played on Sunday by the Chiaroscuro Quartet, a group which plays standing up, and, if anything, brought an even greater aching beauty to Beethoven than the Signum did to Schubert.

Both groups give the impression of a desire to cast performing tradition aside, and begin afresh, taking only the merest sip from the string-playing norms of the last century or more. The Chiarocsuro offered Beethoven with the lightest vibrato I’ve ever heard in the repertoire. And the effect is nothing if not provocative. Nothing any more seems incidental. Every clash and dissonance stands out, resolution is curtailed, wonder is magnified. It’s as if the whole magnificent piece has been tautened and brought into focus to sound at once familiar and strange.

Fanny Clamagirand on Beethoven’s violin sonatas: ‘This music is so rich, so intense, so complex’ Opens in new window ]

Beyond these five-star performances, the weekend’s cycle of Beethoven violin and piano sonatas from Fanny Clamagirand and Roustem Saitkoulov was a mixed bag. It often sounded as if they were engaged in the musical equivalent of trying to talk at and over each other, an effect that the pianist would usually dominate unless, as did happen, the violinist goes into turbocharged mode. This was a stark contrast between the scrupulous balances of the Signum and Chiaroscuro Quartets, and it often seemed as if Beethoven’s dynamic markings had been cast aside as irrelevant suggestions. The duo were at their best in the most high-powered of the sonatas, the Kreutzer, where they also found great poignancy in the slow movement.

Denmark’s Nightingale Quartet made their strongest impression in a well-mannered account of Smetana’s Quartet No 1 (From My Life) where it was their sheer loveliness in the slow movement that stood out.

The Signum offered two works from their ongoing “Bridging the chasms that divide” series, which celebrates the 30th anniversary of the ending of apartheid. On a first hearing, Neo Muyanga’s eMthini we Mbumba came across as rather anodyne, but the folksier 21.30 by Dizu Plaatjies with Matthijs van Dijk had an immediate, folksy appeal.

Oppressed and neglected voices surfaced too in Roxanna Panufnik’s new The Faithful Gazelle, which she started composing in 2021, when “the three-month-old Taliban takeover of Afghanistan was very fresh in everyone’s mind and there seemed to be a collective feeling of utter helplessness”.

Her work, for clarinet and string quartet (Matthew Hunt and Signum Quartett) is a celebration of Afghan culture, through an Afghan-flavoured musical presentation (the quartet wore anklet bells) of an apocryphal tale about a magical gazelle and an ungrateful beggar whose self-centredness loses him his life’s best chance. The svelte clarinet represented the gazelle, the rough, uncouth cello a rather animalistic beggar.

Michael Dervan

Michael Dervan

Michael Dervan is a music critic and Irish Times contributor