The mysteries of Bach unwrapped at Kilkenny Arts Festival

Kilkenny’s 10-day immersion in Bach was a box-office success and provided a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity

Kilkenny likes Bach. At the close of this year's Kilkenny Arts Festival, where the musical focus gave the music of Bach the largest, most concentrated exposure it has ever had in Ireland, Eugene Downes, the festival's director, announced record box-office revenue. Queues for returns at the Bach concerts were not unusual, and the many listeners who chose to take in multiple concerts gave the air of being on some kind of pilgrimage, as they did last year when the focus was on Beethoven, and as they no doubt will next year, when the featured composer will be Mozart.

The kind of focus that Kilkenny offers clearly triggers a kind of collector's instinct. Ten-day immersions in Bach are a rarity, and the chance to hear three different versions of the Goldberg Variations in a week is probably a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

The second and third of these brought the Goldbergs as they are most commonly heard: on harpsichord, by Tehran-born Mahan Esfahani; and on piano, by Shanghai-born Zhu Xiao-Mei. I've never heard the Goldbergs in concert so close together on these two instruments, and I was struck by how almost corpulent the piano sounded after the silvery clarity of the harpsichord.

Esfahani’s approach was at once thoughtful and almost reckless. I say almost, because he has the facility to race through the fastest passages with machine-like precision. Zhu’s approach was more reserved, more inward, more overtly in search of the spiritual. You might think that would make for a longer performance, but Zhu was less generous with repeats than Esfahani and there was nearly a quarter of an hour in difference between the two players. I found myself altogether more taken with Esfahani’s vigour than Zhu’s reflectiveness.


Zhu, who currently lives in Paris, survived the rigours of China's Cultural Revolution. She makes no secret of how severely scarred she was by it, and in an engrossing public interview with Eugene Downes she spoke revealingly about the unusual struggles of her career, which are also documented in her memoir, The Secret Piano.

The busiest musicians of the week were the players of Camerata Kilkenny. The group's leader, violinist Maya Homburger, bore a Herculean workload, and Malcolm Proud, who was heard on organ as well as harpsichord, was not far behind.

The best of their purely instrumental appearances featured three of Bach's best-loved concertos in nicely energised performances, the Fifth Brandenburg Concerto (with Rachel Beckett on flute, Homburger on violin and Proud on harpsichord), the Double Violin Concerto (Homburger and Claire Duff) and the Harpsichord Concerto in D minor (Proud).

Homburger's largest undertaking was a late-night Bach Meditation, originally billed as the complete sonatas and partitas for solo violin "in one continuous flow," but later modified to a generous selection from these works, interspersed with pieces by György Kurtág, Barry Guy (with Guy himself on double bass) as well as improvisations.

The concert overlapped with an earlier programme I was at. When I dropped into the candle-lit Black Abbey there was a gutsy rawness in the playing that reflected the enormity of the effort involved; the audience seemed fully wrapped up in the music.

It's one of the mysteries of Bach – and also of Arvo Pärt – that the strictest of compositional techniques can result in music of broad appeal. The fact that those techniques are so fully subsumed is, I suspect, the main reason why Bach is so highly regarded by musicians and fellow composers. The likes of Beethoven and Brahms may have their major detractors (John Tavener and Benjamin Britten, respectively), but Bach can be revered by all.

No extended Bach celebration would really make sense without some of the most learned compositions. Camerata Kilkenny tackled the canonic wonders of the Musical Offering (with mixed results, to my ears) and organist James McVinnie took on The Art of Fugue (with real gusto and some gaudy, in-your-face colourings, on the organ of St Canice's Cathedral). Malcolm Proud's later performance of the German Organ Mass on the same instrument was more luminous.

Beyond Bach

Kilkenny found room for some concerts that strayed well outside the focus on Bach. The greatest living exponent of the viola da gamba, Jordi Savall, sat at an angle so that he could address listeners in the nave and transept of the Black Abbey on equal terms, and seemed to fill the space with the attractively nasal and sometimes surprisingly deep tones of his soft-spoken instrument.

He played works by the great masters of the French solo viol repertoire, Marin Marais and Sainte-Colombe, and also included a selection from Englishman Tobias Hume's Musicall Humours of 1605. Hume was a military man by profession and a passionate explorer when it came to music; his viol music includes early experiments in pizzicato and playing with the wood of the bow. Last week in Kilkenny it was hard to imagine a more perfect setting for this music, or a more perfect delivery of it. At least half a dozen people remarked to me that they found even the tuning of the instrument so beautiful that they were happy to listen to it for its own sake.

There was something of the same atmosphere of pristine music-making at András Schiff's piano recital at St Canice's Cathedral on Friday. Schiff offered the last piano sonatas by Haydn, Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert, and played each of them as if they were lit from within in an almost otherworldly way. Schiff dedicated the concert to the memory of John and Doreen Ruddock, who presented him in his first Irish concerts, in Limerick and Dublin, in June 1975.

Delicacy and understatement were the order of the day, yet nothing was left unsaid in an evening that seemed not to have even a single extraneous element, unless you want to cast the single generous encore, Bach's complete Italian Concerto, in that light. An unforgettable evening.