A fluke heatwave in Ireland, of all places, gave the West Cork Chamber Music Festival stiff competition this year, but the annual gathering of some of the world's best musicians went out in style on Sunday in the gorgeous candlelit setting of the Bantry House Library. Those concertgoers who tore themselves away from the beach could watch the glorious sunlight fade to dusk through the library's huge windows while bathing in some of the best chamber-music playing I've heard this year.

Alina Ibragimova © Eva Vermandel
Alina Ibragimova
© Eva Vermandel

The award for most sensational performance of the evening had to go to violinist Alina Ibragimova, teaming up with her longtime partner Cédric Tiberghien, for a storming rendition of Cesar Franck's Violin Sonata for Piano and Violin in A major. Written in 1886, four years before the composer's death, the piano-friendly Franck deliberately gave his own instrument top billing, but Ibragimova expended all her considerable powers to upend that order.

Giving little clue of what she was intending, Ibragimova played the swaying opening movement almost demurely, lulling the listener into thinking this is one of Franck's piano pieces, with violin on the side. In the second movement Allegro she let loose with a gutsy, powerful sound that made it seem like she'd changed instruments mid-performance. The beautiful, anguished theme of the third movement has rarely sounded so heartfelt. And she poured out her soul in the fourth movement Allegro poco mosso, bobbing and weaving to drain every last ounce of sound from the violin. Her riveting performance, with the ever-attentive Tiberghien, was met with cheers and foot stamping.

Fauré's Piano Quartet no. 2 in G minor that followed is a more relaxed affair, with the exception of the second movement that appears to be Fauré's way of making his listeners feel the monotony of the many train trips he was required to make at that time in his life. It is a perpetuum mobile that could serve as the soundtrack for a cartoon of a chugging locomotive. The third movement, by contrast, is a haunting Adagio that evokes the church bells that Fauré heard during his childhood, while the fourth contains hints of the composer's famous Dolly Suite. It all came to life in the hands of a very capable foursome comprising violinist Elina Vähälä, Dana Zemtsov on viola, Andreas Brantelid on cello and pianist Cédric Pescia.

With the candles lit in the chandelier over the performing platform, the evening ended with a thoughtful and accomplished performance of Brahms' challenging String Sextet no. 2 in G major. Brahms doubles the cellos and violas to give them equal footing with the violins, but at the same time raises the levels of complication exponentially. Mairéad Hickey, Irish Young Musician of the Year 2010-12, got the piece off to a great start with beautiful phrasing and intonation of the critical opening theme. This is a work where everything can fall into place if everyone pays attention to everyone else... and the players did, to great effect. 

The concert had opened with a rarity, at least for Bantry, of Korean composer Isang Yun's Together for violin and double bass (1989). The composer, who died in 1995, was kidnapped in West Berlin in 1967 by the South Korean secret service and imprisoned on spying charges. He was released after a worldwide protest and spent the remainder of his life abroad, seeking unification of the North and South. Whether the odd instrumentation of violin and double bass, performed by Vähälä and Niek de Groot, respectively, is a metaphor for the joining of opposites is anyone's guess, but the piece was mesmerising.