The unpredictable magic of the new encounter

West Cork Chamber Music Festival director Francis Humphreys struck gold this year bringing together violinist Viviane Hagner, cellist Johannes Moser and pianist Barry Douglas

German-Korean violinist Viviane Hagner

German-Korean violinist Viviane Hagner


Every year the West Cork Chamber Music Festival is a musical matchmaker’s gamble. Musicians are brought together from around the world and, apart from the fact that the string quartet repertoire is allocated to established ensembles, there are really no other givens in terms of who plays with whom.

Existing duo partnerships may well be respected. But piano quintets may be made up of five musicians who have never played together before. And larger groupings – this year’s Schubert Octet and Mozart Wind Serenades – are all likely to be ad hoc. For the festival’s director, Francis Humphrys, this is all part of the plan. The unpredictable magic of the new encounter is very much his goal.

He struck gold this year when he brought together German-Korean violinist Viviane Hagner, German-Canadian cellist Johannes Moser and Irish pianist Barry Douglas to play the three piano trios of Beethoven’s Op 1 in three separate concerts.

 After his arrival in Vienna in 1792 Beethoven established a reputation as a pianist, and was prized for his improvisations. He even complained in a letter that he had “noticed fairly often how some people in Vienna after hearing me extemporise one evening would next day note down several peculiarities of my style and palm them off with pride as their own”. His revenge was to publish a set of variations that the musical thieves might be asked to play which had passages of a difficulty which would cause them to “cut a sorry figure”. 

 The three piano trios were carefully chosen to bear the designation Op 1. Piano trios had been a speciality of his teacher, Haydn. And Beethoven’s have a new kind of richness, with an energetic sparkle in the piano writing that can only have enhanced his reputation as a performer. 

In the 21st century it’s not unusual to hear the works under-expressed in performance, as if they are best perceived as precursors to later greatness. Hagner, Moser and Douglas communicated each of the three as great pieces in their own right. Douglas kept a tight rein through his exceptional rhythmic precision and finely-gauged dynamic shaping, and the two string players fully matched him in scale and expressive reach. 

There was a similarly special aura to the late-night performance of Schubert’s String Quintet with Moser teaming up with the Pacifica Quartet. In the context of chamber music festivals, this is an understandably over-played piece. It’s loved by players and audiences alike, but it is not always handled with the sensitivity it requires. On this occasion the Pacifica’s leader, Simin Ganatra, played at times as if she must have had a direct line to the spirit of the composer himself. 

At the other end of the Schubert spectrum was the account of the composer’s String Quartet in G, D887, his last quartet, in the hands of the Pavel Haas Quartet. Here the players seemed to be straining every last nerve so that they could sound like an orchestra rather than just four musicians. The effect was highly distorted and grotesque, and the performance’s moments of genuine intimacy had no hope of balancing things out.

Norwegian violinist Henning Kraggerud offered a late-night survey of the six solo violin sonatas that Belgian violinist, composer and conductor Eugène Ysaÿe wrote in 1924. Each of the sonatas is dedicated to a great violinist, the first four to men who are well remembered today, Joseph Szigeti, Jacques Thibaud, George Enescu and Fritz Kreisler, the last two to Mathieu Crickboom and Manuel Quiroga. The original inspiration was hearing Szigeti play the solo violin music of Bach, and each sonata is intended to embrace characteristics of its dedicatee. Only the sonatas dedicated to Enescu and Thibaud are heard with any regularity in the concert hall. 

Kraggerud also spoke about each of the pieces in advance with insight and wit. He’s a composer as well as a violinist, and he talks about music with a composer’s hunger for understanding its material and the nature of its construction.

All this would be beside the point, of course, if his playing did not match up to the ambition of the music. It did, and the concert provided its listeners with a rare kind of immersion in pieces that are not often communicated with the intensity of focus that Kraggerud brought to them.

The festival’s visiting wind players provided some of the festival’s later highlights, letting their hair down in the 2013 Quintet for piano and wind by Finnish composer Kalevi Aho – Finnish pianist Joonas Ahonen seemed much more at home in this work than in the Mozart quintet for the same scoring – and in two of Mozart’s glorious serenades for wind, K375 and K488.

2017 was a year of change for the West Cork festival. The plan to build a new venue for the festival seems to have gone into temporary hold while the probably inevitable complications surrounding the development are sorted out. This year’s festival was the first without the presence of the Vanbrugh Quartet, although that ensemble’s cellist, Christopher Marwood, played in a number of concerts and gave masterclasses.

It was also the first for a number of years without a distinct strand of baroque programming, though space was found for two concerts of the Bach suites for solo cello. And it was the first to see a festival fringe, with performances around Bantry itself, as well as on Whiddy and Garnish Islands.

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