Reviewed by Jeremy Nicholas, Gramophone

A piano festival in south-east Ireland is a ceilidh of delights, discovers Jeremy Nicholas

It is an improbable location for a piano festival but, my word, it’s a good one. Snuggled in the south-east corner of Ireland, an easy 30-minute drive from Waterford Airport [landing, baggage collection, passport control and hire car all done in 10 minutes], New Ross lies by the side of the River Barrow. It’s all “a bit shook”, as the locals say. The euro millions have vanished, “To Let” signs decorate the main street, new properties on the outskirts lie empty and the menswear shops seem not to have updated their stocks since the last coronation. I love it. New Ross is just about the friendliest place I’ve ever been to. It has a tapestry exhibition centre [why not?] and in the harbour is an ocean-going replica of the 1845 SS Dunbrody which plied the Atlantic with its cargoes of emigrants escaping the terrible famine. A few miles away is the Kenney Homestead, birthplace of JFK’s great-grandfather [a fine river-side statue of JFK himself commemorates his visit to New Ross in 1963]. Down on the Hook Peninsula is the Hook Lighthouse, still in operation after 800 years.

Halfway up the hill overlooking the town is St Mary’s [for the Left Footers]. Here is the venue for all the concerts, – another unlikely choice and yet it has an acoustic with which the concert halls of many a major city could not compete. With a superb Steinway imported from Cork, a warm atmosphere, room for 350, and a welcome to each concert from festival director Connie Tantrum and her staff of volunteers, the New Ross Piano Festival has a lot going for it before the music starts.

Now in its fifth year, its artistic director is bright spark Irish pianist, Finghin Collins. Opening on a Thursday evening with a concert given by 19 young pianists from the south-east of Ireland and ending on the Sunday afternoon, the 2010 festival featured Collins himself, Sa Chen, Libor Novacek, Abdel Rahman El Bacha, Collin’s young compatriot Rebecca Capova and, for good measure, the Renoir Quartet. Collins’s innovation is to present three different pianists in one evening. Novacek playing Janacek, and Collins with Schumann’s Fantasiestucke, Op 12 for the first half, Sa Chen with the Renoir Quartet in the piano quintet arrangement of Chopin’s E minor Concerto for the second; on the following evening we had Sa Chen in Beethoven’s E flat Sonata, Op 31 No 3, Collins and the Renoirs in Schumann’s Piano Quintet, with El Bacha in Chopin’s 24 preludes after the interval. Meanwhile, Novacek had played a late-morning recital and given a masterclass to two young pianists in the afternoon. Simultaneously, in the middle of the main street, Colm “Stride” O’Brien gave us Joplin, Gershwin and Leander Fisher’s The Robin’s Return. Some onlookers had never seen a piano being played before. When Colm took a break, volunteers from the audience provided an impromptu concert; elsewhere, pianos had been put in various places throughout the town for anyone to have a go. The piano, this festival reminded us, is not the exclusive preserve of the professional, the serious and the classical.

Highlights? You mean apart from the new friends made, the occasional alcoholic refreshment and the parties after each concert? The full-bodied Schumann Quintet, Novacek giving his all in Mussorgsky’s Pictures, Collins’s hushed late-night performance of Schubert’s great B flat Sonata, and Sa Chen in the Chopin Concerto, a work which in her hands has an emotional appeal I have rarely heard equalled. All were met with appreciative standing ovations.

They are looking for sponsors for next year’s festival. ‘Twas ever thus. Hopefully, someone who cares passionately about the piano with a few thousand euros to spare will put their hand up. This festival is a little gem worth nurturing and preserving.

Jeremy Nicholas

25 to 28 September 2014