West Cork Chamber Music Festival delivers stunning quartet performances

A singular listening experience prevailed at this unique public recital

LP Hartley’s great line, “the past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”, certainly applies to the world of the string quartet. Take the major theme of the first weekend of the West Cork Chamber Music Festival, a strand of concerts showcasing the set of six quartets that Mozart dedicated to Haydn in 1785 and the set of six that Beethoven published as his Op. 18 in 1801.

These were presented in concerts in Bantry House and St Brendan’s Church on Wolfe Tone Square. But when they were composed the very idea of a public concert of string quartets was still in the future. Quartet-playing was a private activity, engaged in just for the benefit of the players themselves, or for themselves and a small group of friends.

There was, however, a reasonably substantial market for music publishers to serve. It’s been estimated that more than 3,500 quartets by some 200 composers were published in Paris between 1770 and 1800.

Public concerts of string quartets by a regular ensemble were still a couple of years away, and it would not be until the last decade of the 19th century that the kind of permanent, professional string quartets that we know today would emerge.


Nothing tells the story of the string quartet in quite the same was as drawings and photographs of the seating arrangements and the types of music stands that were used. The earliest examples I’ve seen show the players facing each other around a table, reading the music from a single, four-sided stand on the table itself. It’s an arrangement that has no front and back, no correct side for anyone to listen from. It’s all about the experience of the players, not of any other listeners.

There are also illustrations involving separate table-top stands for each player, and, later, of conventional-looking but double-sided stands, both of which keep the players much closer than the range of layouts used in performances today.

Obviously, it was the move into the concert hall that necessitated a less self-communing approach. The closed formation had to be opened up through the creation of more space between the players. String quartet playing may still be an activity between friends, but today’s practice dictates that the first violinist, the leader, be on the left, and that the spacing of players allow audiences to see into the ensemble.

Seeing into the ensemble is one thing, but hearing as if inside it is quite another. What was most remarkable about the Chiaroscuro Quartet’s performances in the west Cork festival’s opening weekend was the sense of inversion of listening experience that it offered.

The fully-blended, solidly-projected public face that ensembles present to the public was somehow turned into an insider experience. It was like being transported out of your seat and placed inside the group so that not even the tiniest of nuances was lost. With every sound so immediate, you could summon any musical line at any time for the closest of attention.

What was on display was, in short, a peculiar type of recreative genius. The Chiaroscuro presented the most purely democratic kind of music-making you could possibly imagine, with everyone on stage delighting in finding ways to allow everyone else to be heard.

I heard the group in three works, Beethoven’s Quartets in F, Op. 18 No. 1, in A, Op. 18 No. 5, and Mozart’s Quartet in D minor, K421, and I have never had such an immersive and finely balanced concert experience of these great works. It was the kind of playing that if you heard it in a recording you would imagine the effect to be the outcome of skill with microphones and mixers rather than an honest representation of what was played. Unforgettable.

The weekend's other unforgettable performances came from Dénes Várjon in Beethoven's Hammerklavier Sonata, a reading that was not just sensational but sensationalist – an approach that treated Beethoven with a freedom that would have been more appropriate to Liszt. Also unforgettable for the wrong reasons was the Delta Piano Trio's over-the-top handling of Lera Auerbach's over-the-top Piano Trio No 2 (Tryptych – The Mirror has Three Faces), an exercise in blunt expressive extremes that seems to want to begin where the late Alfred Schnittke left off.

Vårjon’s Hammerklavier was a late night event, as was Finghin Collins’s account of Schubert’s late Piano Sonata in B flat, D960. Every time I have heard Collins play this work, I have marvelled at his honeyed tone and found myself perplexed at the mismatch between his musical grasp of the first two and last two movements. The lighter the tone of the music in this work, the better he plays it. The best music, though, is not in the lighter movements but in the huge span of the first movement, and the grave depths of the second.

The Borusan Quartet provided satisfyingly conventional performance in the Mozart and Beethoven series, Beethoven's Ghost Trio was given a masterly account by Viviane Hagner (violin), Johannes Moser (cello) and Barry Douglas (piano), Ensemble Dagda showed themselves full of promise in a programme of works by women of the 17th and 18th centuries, and visiting Swedish composer Andrea Tarrodi's personal voice seemed to be most fully expressed in Sorrow and Joy, a slow, soulful duet for viola and cello (Jon and Hanna Dahlkvist).

The West Cork Chamber Music Festival continues in Bantry until Sunday, westcorkmusic.ie