How often are “beautiful pythonesses” the inspiration for music? Quite frequently, if we decode correctly Saint-Saëns’s jealous description of César Franck’s muse, the wildly beautiful Augusta Holmès, for his Piano Quintet in F minor. Tonight’s programme was daring, in that half the concert featured less than familiar works; Panufnik’s String Quartet no. 2 “Messages” and Bloch’s Violin Sonata no. 1. According to one seasoned festival-goer, it was one of the few times there have been free seats here at Bantry House, something he attributed to the more esoteric programming this year. There is always a fine balance to be struck between airing works of contemporary/modern composers and attracting capacity audience. I found it refreshing to hear such rarely heard works live by excellent musicians. We were on safe ground with Franck’s Piano Quintet in F minor which remains as appealing now as when it was first composed.

Apollon Musagète Quartet © Marco Borggreve
Apollon Musagète Quartet
© Marco Borggreve

The young and extremely talented Polish Apollon Musagète Quartet elected to continue their exploration of their fellow countryman with Panufnik’s String Quartet no. 2. Entitled Messages, this refers to the composer’s favourite holiday pastime as a child: listening to the eerie sounds emanating from the telegraph poles. As the composer himself explains, “my main intention was... to convey to the listener some of the mysterious messages which I used to overhear in my imagination from the telegraph poles”.

While through-composed in one movement, there are seven distinct sections with differing tempi. The Apollon Musagète Quartet convincingly conveyed the thin wire sound of the telegraph poles of the opening with barely audible industrial sounding flautando harmonics. There was a coquettish feel to the pizzicato at the beginning of the second Allegretto which developed into a more serious mood, the quartet employing richer tone, like melting dark chocolate.

The Vivo section was harsh and intentionally brash as the music built up both emotionally and rhythmically. The manic tremelandi of Bartosz Zachłod (2nd violin) and Piotr Szumieł, (viola) led into a vortex of fast repetitions of the cell. As the tension eased in the sixth Allegretto rubato the quartet imbued their lines with a budding tenderness, leading us to speculate as to what this message might behold (a love that might have been?).

One does not simply listen to Ernest Bloch’s Violin Sonata no. 1: for one thing, it inspires strong reactions either negatively or positively. Written just after World War 1, it is in the composer’s own words “the frantic struggle of blind and primordial forces”. In the hands of violinist Nurit Stark and her husband, pianist Cédric Pescia, this became one of the most engaging performances of this music I have heard. Attacking the Agitato with a ferocity that was shocking, Nurit and Pescia conjured up the violence of war with visceral intensity. The dreamy second subject shimmered mysteriously with Nurit’s magnetic vibrato but not before the pounding rhythm propeled the music and listener forward to the disturbingly powerful climax. The spiritual miasma of the second movement was well captured by Pescia’s Tibettan Bells on the piano and a muted and hushed violin, reflecting Bloch’s interest in Tibetan Buddhism.

The Zen-like peace was banished with the onslaught of the barbaric third movement march. Once again, Nurit threw herself into the heart of this, losing realms of bow hair in the process and producing an incandescent and mesmerising interpretation. The peaceful end was nothing short of stunning.

The Quatour Danel had finished their series of Beethoven Razumovsky quartets just a few hours earlier and were back to perform Cesar Franck’s Piano Quintet in F minor with Julius Drake. Given the background of Franck’s love affair with his student, Augusta Holmès, it is not too surprising that this work embodies the release of Franck’s pent-up emotions in this raw and turbulent work.

And what a performance of simmering intensity did the Quatour Danel and Drake give. Relishing the unabashed romanticism, each imbued their instruments with seductive tones, their vibrato quivering with passion. Drake, despite raising the piano lid to full stick, melded his sound well with his companions. Only once in the third movement did he slightly overpower them, although this was a mere peccadillo in the maelstrom of passion.

The disconsolate phrasing of the slow movement smouldered with desire while Marc Danel’s violin high interjections were nothing short of exquisite. The pulsating strings in the finale coupled by the rapid filigree from Drake on the piano were as thrilling as the longing of the F minor-major tension at the end. This was a heady and heart-racingly brilliant performance.