Westport’s awake to the sounds of chamber music

It’s easy to compare the approaches of different instrumentalists at Westport Festival of Chamber Music

Opening show: Hugh Tinney and Catherine Leonard, who played at, and are joint artistic directors of, Westport Festival of Chamber Music

Opening show: Hugh Tinney and Catherine Leonard, who played at, and are joint artistic directors of, Westport Festival of Chamber Music

 

It’s not just when times are good that good things happen. Dublin Grand Opera Society, which dominated operatic life in Dublin for nearly seven decades, was founded in 1941 during what official Ireland called the Emergency. Wexford Festival Opera was held for the first time in 1951, when households were still having to deal with postwar – sorry, post-Emergency – rationing of bread, butter, tea and sugar, among other staples. And Opera Theatre Company gave its first production in 1986, in the middle of a decade when the blight of emigration was rampant.

OTC and Wexford are still, happily, with us, and although Opera Ireland (a rebranded Dublin Grand Opera Society) has bitten the dust, a potential successor has arrived in the form of Wide Open Opera. Other developments that we might still be reaping the benefits of in the coming decades include the national music-education programme, Music Generation, the New Music Dublin festival (due again next March, with the Bang on a Can composer David Lang as artistic director), Irish Youth Opera (whose inaugural production, of Britten’s Rape of Lucretia, is currently on tour), and NI Opera (which is currently touring Mozart’s Magic Flute, and whose reach has already extended to presenting Gerald Barry’s The Importance of Being Earnest in Dublin and Cork, as well as Derry and Belfast).

Last year also brought two new chamber-music festivals, one in Killaloe, with the Irish Chamber Orchestra’s principal viola player, Joachim Roewer, as artistic director, and another, Westport Festival of Chamber Music, with the violinist Catherine Leonard and the pianist Hugh Tinney as joint artistic directors.

Both of the new festivals are weekend events, and both have churches as their home base. But for its opening concert Westport uses a second venue, Westport House, a welcoming place that is both a museum and a house that is lived in and cared for.

The room that’s used for concerts is an awkward L shape. Last year the performers tried to reach the maximum number of listeners by playing in the angle of the L. This year they played at the other end of the long side, providing a more normal concert experience. The sound is dry and more than a little boxy, the ambience historically luxuriant.

The programming follows the model established by West Cork Chamber Music Festival, which creates a temporary community of musicians who join forces in different combinations for different works.

Friday’s opening programme, for instance, brought a Beethoven violin sonata (with Leonard and Tinney), a Mozart violin sonata arranged for oboe and piano (Nicholas Daniel and Finghin Collins) and Fauré’s First Piano Quartet (with Katherine Hunka, Jennifer Stumm, Guy Johnston and Collins).

The Beethoven didn’t have quite the fluidity of balance that Leonard and Tinney managed to bring to their complete series of the Beethoven sonatas at the National Concert Hall earlier this year. Substituting oboe for violin in a Mozart sonata seems like a long shot to me at the best of times. When set against piano, the oboe doesn’t have the kind of accompanimental grace that is so readily available from a violin.

But Nicholas Daniel is an extraordinary player, and he always managed to hold the attention. Unfortunately, both he and Collins chose at times to present a camped-up Mozart, as if taking their cue from Tom Hulce’s performance as the composer in Amadeus, Milos Forman’s 1984 movie.

Different approaches

In the Fauré, Collins came across as someone who regularly allowed assertiveness to stray over into dominance. Yes, he played more quietly when he needed to. But he never really created a background. When he needed, in musical terms, to be the equivalent of patterned wallpaper, he managed to focus attention on himself like a portrait standing out from that background.

By contrast Tinney was the soul of collegiality, bending and ducking and weaving so that the string players would always be supported by his efforts and never overpowered by them. And he still managed to assert himself so that everything the piano needed to say could be heard with perfect clarity. The Fauré sounded like a miniature piano concerto, the Schumann like the impassioned group effort that it genuinely is.

Daniel’s dalliance with arrangements didn’t end with the Mozart sonata. He also offered his own completion of a slow movement that Mozart left unfinished, the Adagio K580a, which he offered in a version for cor anglais and strings. It was both beautiful and beautifully played, but it didn’t always sound quite like Mozart.

His arrangement of Francis Poulenc’s early, cheeky sonata for two clarinets as a duo for oboe and clarinet (Chen Halevi) worked a treat, and the playful nose-thumbing of the music brought appreciative chuckles from the audience. He also played Henri Dutilleux’s early Oboe Sonata with Tinney, a demonstrative, utterly French piece, in which both players were on top form.

Young player The Westport festival offers a platform to young players, last year giving a midday recital to the violinist Mairéad Hickey

and this year to the pianist Peter Regan. Regan sounds like a major talent. He completed his Leaving Cert this year but plays with real musical maturity and easy command.

The highlight of the programme were the Six Little Pieces by Arnold Schoenberg, dissonant miniatures from 1911, which Regan delivered with sensuality and an entirely apt romantic sensibility. Schoenberg had a tough time persuading listeners to accept the new musical worlds that he was opening up. He once wrote to a friend about the way audiences were responding to his half-sung, half-spoken melodrama Pierrot Lunaire: “If they were musical, not a single one of them would give a damn for the words. Instead, they would go away whistling the tunes.”

In that spirit, I think, he would have given the thumbs-up to Regan’s playing.

Regan also offered the first movement of Schumann’s Fantasy in C, Op 17, and the 1931 version of Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Sonata. Both are challenges, and he showed he has the technique to shape the bigger picture of both works while keeping control of small details. He seemed more at home with Schumann than with Rachmaninov, whose grandiloquence needs more taming than he managed to muster. mdervan@irishtimes.com

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