St. Columba’s Church in Drumcliffe Co. Sligo has hosted its annual chamber music festival as part of the Sligonian drive to become the cultural hub of the North-West. Over the Bank Holiday weekend, the small Drumcliffe chapel played host to some of the best practitioners of chamber music Ireland has to offer – with a few international friends as well. Chamber music, so called as it is written for small groups of musicians as opposed to an entire orchestra, was the focus of the weekend’s music.
St. Columba’s church is located in the idyllic green Sligo countryside, just under the shadow of the iconic Benbulben mountain. A 10th-century round tower also stands sentinel just across from the graveyard – a remnant from an earlier monastery. The true fame of St. Columba’s, however, is that it is the final resting place of poet and dramatist W.B. Yeats, whose grandfather was rector of the church. The snug Church of Ireland chapel proved itself to be an ideal venue for small scale classical performances, the vaulted roof allowing the very best of acoustic resonance giving the impression of a much larger room – although the top quality musicians can also take credit for that. A certain sense of style and elegance was added to the venue with the inclusion of a beautiful Steinway grand piano in the tiny chapel – special praise must be given to those who managed to get it in there.
Over Saturday and Sunday (3pm showings only, reviewed here), the audience was treated to selected works by Joseph Haydn, Francis Poulenc, Ludwig Van Beethoven, Patrick Connolly, Henryk Wieniawski, Henry Purcell, Cecile Chaminade, Claude Debussy, Richard Strauss and some songs collected by Herbert Hughes.
Saturday 2nd May.
Over the course of an hour and fifteen minutes, three acts played selected works of Haydn, Poulenc and Beethoven. Trio Image, a German group comprising of Gergana Gergova on violin, Pavlin Nechev on piano and Austrian cellist Thomas Kaufmann are internationally acclaimed for their impassioned performances. As the first act of the afternoon, they set the tone beautifully with Haydn’s Piano trio in E flat minor, Hob.XV:31.
It is unusual to hear piano trios in concert these days, particularly by Haydn. There does not seem to be an appetite for them among audiences. There is also the fact that the cellists part in these early classical trios are often relegated to mere accompaniment instead of a true partner to the violin and piano. As the name suggests, the piano takes centre frame in this trio, with the strings echoing the piano material in their respective registers, by which I mean the violin played variations on the right hand while the cello doubled the ictus of the pianos left hand. As for Saturdays Trio Image performance, they would not have sounded out of place in 18th century Vienna, such was the quality and authenticity of the presentation.
The middle act of Saturdays show was a violin sonata performed by Aoife Ní Bhríain as the soloist and Finghin Collins accompanying on piano playing Francis Poulenc – a composer rarely performed. Poulenc was born into a wealthy Parisian family in 1899 and was a prolific composer until his death in 1963. Although best known for his more light-hearted works and his flirtations with popular music – the influence of jazz can be clearly heard in this piece – Poulenc also wrote more serious music which are lesser known. Indeed, this violin sonata was written during the Second World War, and the sounds of artillery and machinery are represented in the discordant and oft-times frantic duels between piano and violin. As a point of interest, this sonata was dedicated to the memory of Federico García Lorca who was shot during the Spanish Civil War for his leftist politics and his homosexuality. Ní Bhríain was an absolute tour de force even if the frequent pizzicatos got a bit lost under the thunderous piano, while Collins proved himself to be a faultless accompaniment and added a grounding element to the frenzied intensity of Ní Bhríain as required by the manuscript. The two are a remarkable partnership capable of tackling the trickiest of pieces with ease.
The Vogler Quartet was the final act in the concert performing Beethoven’s String Quartet in F, Op.18 No.1 written between 1789 and 1800. The Opus 18, in particular, the string quartets, were the works that made Europe sit up and pay attention to the 28-year-old Beethoven. Although the progression and tempo of the four movements ((i) Allegre con brio, (ii) Adagio affetuoso ed appassionato, (iii) Scherzo. Allegro molto, (iv) Allegro), borrow heavily from structures laid down by Haydn and Mozart, they nonetheless have a Beethovian flair which captured the attention of critics when they first premiered in 1801. The Vogler Quartet – German born, but honorary Sligonians – have been the Quartet in residence in Sligo since 1999. Their mastery of the classics as well as their willingness to experiment with more modern ideas has earned them acclaim from all over the world. In fact, their collaboration with German singer Ute Lemper earned them a Grammy nomination in 2013. Their performance in St Columba’s church was as solid a performance as you expect from such experienced stalwarts of chamber music.
Sunday 3rd May.
The first featured composer was Patrick Connolly, an Irish-born composer who has been making waves in classical music scenes both at home and abroad. His accolades include the Seán O’ Riada Trophy in 2011. Elegy for Solo Violin was written for the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing and was performed by Aoife Ní Bhríain. As is often the case with modern classical composers, this piece (though brilliantly performed by Ní Bhríain) tended to favour innovation over accessibility. Having said that, the clashing confusion and multiple melodies performed on one instrument evoke perfectly the tragedy and horror of the Boston Marathon attack; this piece tells a narrative rather than simply expressing an aesthetic. Connolly is a composer who writes no more than he needs to.
For the second act, Aoife Ní Bhríain was joined yet again by Finghin Collins for their performance of Henryk Wieniawski’s Variation on an Original Theme, Op. 15. Wieniawski, like Mozart, was a child prodigy who won first prize for violin at the Paris Conservatoire in his eleventh year. He was also a pioneer of the ‘Wieniawski bow grip’ which was a variant of the ‘Russian bow grip’. This was a punishing technique which is not only a disciplinary exercise for students, but also a technique which allows the ‘Devils staccato’ method to be utilised with greater ease. The ‘Devils staccato’ is used to great effect in this piece and played to perfection by Ní Bhríain. This piece includes some light hearted passages as well as the darker, more serious themes. This performance by Ní Bhríain and Collins was worth the ticket price alone. It received a generous ovation, including one very elderly gentleman who struggled to his feet to stand as the performers took their bows.
The next act comprising of chanteuse Rachel Kelly (Soprano) and Dearbhla Collins (Pianist and sister of aforementioned Finghin Collins) performed fourteen songs by five composers. Henry Purcells ‘Music for a While’ was the serene opening number followed by two haunting love songs composed by Cécile Chaminade. Chaminade has the distinction of being the first female composer to be awarded the Légion d’Honneur in 1913. The three Claude Debussy songs that followed were the Chansons de Bilitis. These were songs inspired by the pagan poetry of Pierre Louÿs, the result being that they carry just as much impact with or without music. After four Richard Strauss numbers came some works collected by the great Irish music collector and composer Herbert Hughes. ‘She Moved Through the Fair’ was given the pace and yearning it deserved by Kelly, as was the lesser known ‘Forlorn Queen’. The last song was a peppery, jaunty version of ‘Star of the County Down’. After two ovations, Collins and Kelly came back for an encore of ‘Danny Boy’ (For which they can be forgiven, considering the brilliance of their overall performance).
In terms of ticket prices, the above reviewed performances were €15 each – a steal considering the volume of work performed and the quality of musicians and singers performing it.