As the end of June signifies the start of Wimbledon for tennis fans, so too does this time  mark the opening of the West Cork Chamber Music Festival – a ten-day festival in the picturesque town of Bantry, County Cork. Tonight’s concert took place in the Palladian splendour of Bantry House, which looked enchanting bathed in golden sunlight, and it featured three different groups of musicians: a young duo, the Dudok Quartet Amsterdam and the Quatuor Danel.

Quatuor Danel © Ant Clausen
Quatuor Danel
© Ant Clausen

The programme ranged from the wonderfully familiar “Razumovsky” Quartet, Op.59 no. 1 by Beethoven to the infrequently heard Bacewicz’s String Quartet no. 4. What this programme lacked in homogeneity, it made up for in innovation, as each of the chamber groups brought a freshness of approach to each of their works.

Irish violinist Mairéad Hickey and Dutch cellist Ella van Poucke, two very promising young musicians, delved into Kodály’s Duo for violin and cello, Op.7 with poise and no little passion. Poucke attacked the opening vigorously while Hickey answered her eliciting a sweet tone from her violin. This dual tension was well observed throughout the first movement where the mournful melodies alternated with moments of visceral intensity. Eschewing vibrato in the first part of the Adagio, Hickey’s melody was suitably bare, conjuring up an eerie atmosphere. The final movement was electrifying, shot through with nervous energy. Both Poucke and Hickey seemed to revel in the zany humour of the off-beat accents and folk-song references bringing the work to a vigorous conclusion.

There is an effort to include more women composers in this year’s programme, so the award-winning Dudok Quartet Amsterdam performed Polish woman Grażyna Bacewicz’s String Quartet no. 4. Written in the post-war period at the time of the Soviet Union’s occupation of Poland, she subversively ignored the Socialist Realism dictates on art of the time and instead gave voice to her highly original ideas.

The Dudok Quartet imbued the opening movement with an introspective, elegiac atmosphere while Marie-Louise de Jong sung out the solo in a mellow tone on her viola. I was much impressed by the instinctive flows of communication between each member of the quartet, so well did they blend and balance with one another. Warm and seductive was the tone as the quartet hovered around the tonal centre C before the urgency of the semiquavers.

The second movement meandered gently amidst the ebbs and flows of its melodies while the final movement bounded forward, bubbling over with good humour, the syncopations and the pizzicato played up for all they were worth. The quartet evoked a mysterious atmosphere in the flautando section before the music accelerated forward to its final flourish.

So finally it was the celebrated Quatuor Danel tackling the renowned “Razumovsky” Quartet no. 1 (the other two quartets of Op.59 were played over the weekend). The opening cello melody was answered with vernal shyness by the first violin before exploding into an exciting burst of energy. I was struck by two things with the Quatuor Danel: firstly, the unity of approach where they spoke with one musical voice; secondly, the beauty of their tone – a rich, silky lyricism that was utterly captivating. The first movement alternated between whimsical, rapid fire antiphonal exchanges and energetic outbursts from all instruments.

Rhythmic vitality was to the fore as the Quatuor Danel attacked the Scherzo with vim and vigour. It was fascinating to watch the different personalities in action; violist Vlad Bogdanas’ gestures were as laconic and minimalistic as Marc Danel’s (first violin) were passionate and demonstrative.

Using an intense vibrato, each player imbued the third movement Adagio with an infinite sadness that gave a tender insight into the composer’s soul. The antiphonal exchanges between cello and violin two and then later with the two violinists was extraordinarily beautiful. The finale bounded forth with great excitement, poking fun with off-beat accents and lively variation on the Russian folk tune, bringing this opening concert of the West Cork Chamber Music Festival to a satisfying conclusion.

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