The West Cork Chamber Music Festival opened on Friday with one of Mozart's most celebrated achievements: 22 bars of music so distinctive they seem to engender discussion every time they are played. They are from the slow introduction to his String Quartet in C, K465, and are so unusual that they gave the work its nickname, Dissonance.
The Cremona Quartet’s performance in Bantry was also unusual. The players relished all the dissonant tension they could generate moment by moment, bringing to Mozart a flavour of late Beethoven, music that was a full four decades in the future when Mozart wrote this quartet in 1785.
It’s small wonder that 19th-century musicians confronted with the extremes of Mozart’s imagination sometimes concluded that the printed editions of this work simply had to be faulty.
And late Beethoven too, don’t forget, would struggle to gain acceptance through most of the 19th century.
The Cremona Quartet’s way with the music turned out to be a harbinger of a certain fixity that was evident, too, in the group’s later performances of Beethoven early (Op 18 No 4) and late (Op 132), and Mozart (the String Quintet in G minor, with viola player Lilli Maijala). They like to pay attention to the details in a light, lithe style that focuses attention on the surface of the music to the detriment of deeper issues.
Deeper issues were everywhere apparent in a performance of Beethoven's Archduke Trio by Liana Gourdjia (violin), Marc Coppey (cello) and Peter Laul (piano), the music unfolding with time-stilling patience, almost tactile textural sensitivity and a probing expressivity that was the opposite of the Cremona's approach. What appeared on the surface may have been undemonstrative, but what was underneath was unfailingly rich.
Alina Ibragimova has impressed in Bach at Bantry before, and this year she undertook no fewer than three violin concertos in a single programme with the period instruments group Arcangelo, directed from the harpsichord by Jonathan Cohen. Ibragimova is nothing if not a gutsy player, a musician who dives into the music, body and soul.
Her performances of the familiar concertos in A minor and E major were typically riveting; her handling of a concerto in G minor, reconstructed from a harpsichord concerto, slightly less so.
She was in her element in a searing account of Shostakovich's Piano Trio in E minor, Op 67, with cellist Natalie Clein and pianist José Gallardo. Shostakovich has had a good innings in Bantry, not least when an out-of-season festival featured the complete quartets from the Borodin Quartet back in 2000.
Haydn, the man who first put the string quartet as a medium on the map, has had an altogether rougher ride. So it was a real pleasure to hear Germany’s Signum Quartet bring unforced muscularity and melancholy to his Quartet in F minor, Op 20 No 5. Played as finely as this, it becomes a kind of perfect dark jewel.
Also on good form were the Vanbrugh Quartet, whether showing off their Donegal traditional fiddle style, complete with foot-stomping, in Derry composer Seán Doherty's Quartet No 3 (The Devil's Dream, written in memory of the composer's own fiddle teacher, James Byrne), in finely spun Beethoven (the Quartet in F, Op 59 No 1), or in Brett Dean's quintet, Epitaphs, a mostly non-elegiac memorial to departed friends, with the composer on viola.
It has been 18 months since the Vanbrughs were replaced as RTÉ’s quartet in residence by the Galway-based ConTempo Quartet. It was a difficult time for the group, and they must miss the financial security they enjoyed for more than two decades.
But, musically and creatively, their departure from RTÉ is beginning to look like the best thing that happened to them since, well . . . since they first worked at RTÉ, back in the 1980s.
Belgian cellist David Cohen blew hot and cold in Bach’s First and Second Cello Suites, as if in pursuit of too high a contrast between introspective slow movements and energetic dance movements that were almost tripping over themselves in their haste. He sounded altogether happier in the 20th-century Spanish evocations of Gaspar Cassadó’s Suite.
Barry Douglas was decidedly off form in Schubert's Piano Sonata in A, D959, veering between moments of real insight and a sense of struggle that made him sound completely at odds with his instrument. He was briefly at his best in a single encore, a burnished account of a late Intermezzo (Op 116 No 4) by Brahms.
Duley in Dublin
Earlier in the week Dublin audiences had a hugely varied range of events to choose from. Mark Duley's Resurgam choir presented another of their distinctive choral projects. The Divine Orlando was a four-part retrospective of the music of that 16th-century genius, Lassus, a man Duley characterised as "the first truly international composer".
I caught the opening programme, Journeys of Youth, at the Chapel Royal, Dublin Castle, on Wednesday lunchtime. It featured five singers, Duley on organ, and Israel Golani on lute and cittern. It rang the changes in line-up to great effect. And it was well calculated to end on a musical peak, the sonorous Kyrie from Missa Susanne un jour.
Duley’s project ended in St Ann’s Church, Dawson Street, on Thursday, and just around the corner was an event as different as you could imagine, a rare Dublin appearance by the Quiet Music Ensemble in the Freemason’s Hall on Molesworth Street.
The Quiet Music Ensemble specialises not just in music that's quiet, but also, as its director John Godfrey explained, in music that's peaceful, often presented in the form of drones for contemplation or absorption.
Thursday's climax was Pauline Oliveros's The Mystery Beyond Matter, the music relayed to loudspeakers placed throughout the building, with some listeners choosing to lie on the floor for a better experience. I have to say I found myself wondering if some of the booming effects were intentional or just feedback. I preferred the shorter pieces of the first half, by Godfrey himself, Christopher Fox, Martin Iddon and Jennifer Walshe.
Wednesday brought the Irish debut, with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra under Guerassim Voronkov, of Polish tenor Piotr Beczala. He’s a singer who gives rather than conserves, a man who likes to thrill with his fearlessness – he goes where his gut commands – his open, ringing tone, and his free emotionalism. It’s small wonder that he’s in demand on so many of the world’s great stages.