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West Cork Chamber Music Festival review: A potent, candlelit reminder of Magdalene inhumanity

Second week featured a resplendent Anna Devin, a Levantine exploration and masterly piano performances

Australian mezzo-soprano Lotte Betts-Dean delivered songs with a heightened black-and-white clarity. Photograph: Benjamin Ealovega

West Cork Chamber Music Festival



Composers have set an extraordinary range of texts to music over the years. Irish composer Charles Villiers Stanford, whose centenary falls this year, set limericks by Edward Lear and the Ode to Discord by his friend Charles L Graves, in which he parodied what he saw as the excesses of adventurous composers who were taking music in the wrong direction. Darius Milhaud set excerpts from a farm catalogue, and Charles Ives and Leoš Janáček set newspaper texts that caught their eye.

As part of a Magdalene Songs project, a co-commission by West Cork Chamber Music Festival and the Boyne Music Festival, Deirdre McKay has set a litany of the names from the headstones of more than 70 women who were incarcerated in Magdalene laundries. The stones carry no surnames and the first names may or may not be the actual names the women were given at birth.

The straightforward intoning of the names creates a kind of heightened plaintiveness, interrupted only a couple of times by the words Requiescat in Pace. It is a simple, highly potent way of forcing listeners to confront the inhumanity that on so many levels was a feature of Catholic Ireland.


Rhona Clarke and Deirdre Gribbin set slivers of the damning recorded evidence of named women who survived their incarceration. All of the songs, and also Gribbin’s new setting of Jessica Traynor’s crystalline An Education in Silence, use spare, sometimes blunt means to convey a sense of bottomless anger.

Cillian Murphy: ‘Magdalene laundries were a collective trauma for people of a certain age’Opens in new window ]

Australian mezzo-soprano Lotte Betts-Dean and pianist Deirdre Brenner delivered the songs with a heightened black-and-white clarity in Friday’s late-night concert in Bantry’s St Brendan’s Church, where rows of candles lined the window sills.

The next morning the same venue was the scene for rather more well-trodden approaches to the trials and tribulations of women. Soprano Anna Devin, partnered by Camerata Oresund, under the direction of violinist Peter Spissky, embodied the plight of three women in operas by Handel: Alcina, Rodelinda and Cleopatra (this last in Giulio Cesare). The characters were all finely drawn, whether conveying loss, deception, suffering, gutsiness, fieriness or comfort, Devin’s voice resplendent, her musical taste impeccable, especially in the Handelian manner of the sometimes highly elaborate embellishments.

Wednesday brought the Irish premiere of a multi-partner festival co-commission by Bushra El-Turk, a British composer with Lebanese roots. Her often savage-sounding and microtonal Three Tributes (to Zakieh Agob, Haseeba Mowshe and Rasmiya Jumaa) is for string quartet, with each movement titled as a Portrait, to celebrate “Levantine female singers who lived during the Nahhda period,” which she describes as “a cultural renaissance in the Arabic-speaking world that took place between the mid-19th century and the early 20th century”.

The work opens with the members of Dudok Quartet humming like trapped bees, before transitioning to a similar effect on their instruments. The players were persuasive in capturing the ethnic flavour of the music, in which the coup was, at first, almost the imperceptible addition of a recording of one of the singers.

Sam Perkin’s Childhood Awe is another festival co-commission (with Cork County Council) to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Cork County harpsichord. The combination of archlute (Dohyo Sol) and harpsichord (Marcus Molin) is a highly unusual duo, though the instruments are both plucked and are often heard together playing continuo in baroque music. Perkin created a beautiful pluckfest of high, ethereal, haloed sounds.

The highlights of the closing days came in more orthodox repertoire, with the Brahms Piano Quartets, Op. 25 (the one with the unforgettably fiery Hungarian finale) and Op. 26, played by Moscow-born Israeli pianist Boris Giltburg with members of the Pavel Haas Quartet (Veronika Jarůšková, violin, Šimon Truszka, viola and Peter Jarůšek, cello). These were masterly performances of some of the richest, most tightly-woven and warm-hearted works of their kind, and Giltburg, Jarůšková and Jarůšek, also gave a wonderful account of Ravel’s mesmerisingly extravagant Piano Trio in A minor.

The festival’s centenary tribute to Stanford, his Fantasy No 2 for clarinet and string quartet, Clarinet Sonata and Intermezzo for clarinet and piano (Matthew Hunt with, respectively, the Signum Quartet and Alasdair Beatson), was rather underwhelming, the fault of the composer, not the players.

The best tribute to Stanford was the inclusion of the muscular and bony Piano Trio, composed by one of his pupils, Rebecca Clarke, while he was still alive. It was heard in a thoroughly over the top performance by the Paddington Trio. As a teacher, though doctrinaire in his approach, Stanford never seems to have inhibited the development of styles of composition that were in opposition to his own. That’s a mark of real class.

Michael Dervan

Michael Dervan

Michael Dervan is a music critic and Irish Times contributor