The flames from the two dozen candles burning in the chandelier above the stage in the 19th-century library of the Bantry House mansion in West Cork drew your attention heavenwards... as did the closing moments of Olivier Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time. As Norwegian violinist Henning Kraggerud played these almost inaudible upper register notes, an entire audience held its breath, and maintained that silence after the last traces of music had vanished. Only then did the extended applause begin for a remarkable performance by Kraggerud, cellist Laura van der Heijden, clarinettist Mate Bekavac and pianist Alexei Grynyuk that brought the ten-day long West Cork Chamber Music Festival to a close on Sunday.

Henning Kraggerud © Robert Romik
Henning Kraggerud
© Robert Romik

Festival founder and music director Francis Humphrys had said one of the themes of this year's festival was birdsong, but those birds were singing in a wildly diverse range of places. For Messiaen, the birdsong he weaves into the first movement of his quartet represents the freedom he and his fellow inmates could only dream about at the Stalag VIII concentration camp in Silesia where the composer was imprisoned after France was overrun by the Nazis. He wrote his 55-minute-long quartet for the players he had available – clarinet, violin, broken-down piano and a cello that reputedly had only three strings.

As is often the case in Bantry, the musicians had not necessarily played together before, but rose to the occasion. Bekavac, a Slovenian clarinettist who plays jazz and klezmer as well as classical, gave a demonstration of the outermost limits of human lung capacity with his extended notes in the clarinet solo movement. Van der Heijden proved herself to be the sister of soul on the cello for the second night in succession. Having brought proceedings to a near standstill with a stunning performance in the third movement of the Brahms Piano Quartet no. 3 in C minor on Saturday, she again squeezed every drop of beauty from Messiaen's fifth movement duo for cello and piano that is meant to evoke the eternity of Jesus. Grynyuk, who had his chance to shine earlier in the evening with a show-stopping performance of Liszt's exuberant Hungarian Rhapsody no. 6, was the perfect accompanist in the Messiaen, where much of the piano part consists of repeated chords intended – and succeeding – in creating a sense of timelessness.

Messiaen's quartet could easily make a programme with just one other work, but the last-night Bantry House audience got a real earful to send them on their way. The evening opened with Hindemith's Wind Quintet, a light-hearted work by a composer not much associated with levity. The Azahar Ensemble gave a polished but effervescent performance that would have had fans of French prankster Jean Françaix smiling.

After a blast through Liszt's take on a Pest carnival from the 1840s, the first part of the concert concluded with the Equinox Suite by Kraggerud, extracted from a longer work which has pieces set to different themes in all of the world's 24 time zones. The five sections in the suite included one on an alchemist from the library in Alexandria who has discovered the secret of eternal life and another on a suicide bomber in Baghdad. The latter ended with a hanging, single note played by the violin that seemed to suggest a life had just ended, but otherwise the piece seemed stuck in fairly conventional harmonies and did not impress.

More satisfying was a performance of Turkish pianist Fazil Say's inventive Violin Sonata, performed by violinist Mairéad Hickey and Grynyuk. This 1996 work stands the test of time, incorporating jazz and folk elements and including a section where the pianist plucks the strings for a sound like a Turkish oud. Hickey and Grynyuk gave it a polished reading.

From that soundscape we progressed to another of Benjamin Britten's works based on a theme by an earlier master, in this case his Lachrymae, reflections on a John Dowland song for viola and piano, written by Britten for Walter Primrose if the American virtuoso would play at his Aldeburgh Festival. The resulting work, in the hands of Bantry performers Ellen Nisbeth and Izabella Simon, brought out all the subtleties of the piece in which Britten teases his listeners with a hint of Dowland in the opening but doesn't give the full reveal until the end. What better way to bring the evening round to its climactic moment, the Messiaen, than this sombre work?

A phenomenal programme, beautifully played and delivered, in a stunning place. 

*****