Reviewed by Jeremy Hill, New Ross Echo

Another Superb New Ross Piano Festival

The history of music in New Ross is due another glowing page after the recent Piano Festival weekend at St. Mary’s Church where audiences were treated to work by eighteen composers from 18thC Amadeus Mozart to 21stC Stephen Gardner. As a prelude to the main event, the 2011 New Ross Piano Festival began with a young players’ concert – 20 budding pianists from the south-east aged from 11 to 18. The concert platform is a lonely place even for the professional soloist but these young musicians relished the chance to play a concert grand before an audience. It was exciting to hear the promise of Luke Byrne’s touch and his expression while Ruah Berney-Pearson’s challenging choice of Scriabin’s Prelude #1.op.11 was charmingly played.

In commissioning a new piano composition from an Irish composer in these tough times, the Festival organisers, with welcome grant aid from the Arts Council, have shown that they are taking a meritorious line in programming where the art lives above the commerce. Artistic Director, Finghin Collins had determined to offer the first complete festival of works for two pianos, and Belfast born Stephen Gardner seized, with relish, this unique opportunity to compose for four hands saying “…writing for two pianos opened up all sorts of exciting possibilities.” The world premier of Gardner’s ‘Two guys walk into a piano bar’ was loudly applauded in appreciation not only of the playing of Finghin Collins and Charles Owen but also of the composition itself. There was further enthusiasm for Bartok’s Sonata for two pianos and percussion which was last played in Dublin 40 years ago; and the percussion is not just a rhythm section rather, as Bartok himself asserted, “the two percussion parts are fully equal in rank to the piano parts.” They certainly outnumbered the pianos in using timpani, xylophone, snare drums, bass drums, cymbals, triangle and tam-tam! This was a rare opportunity to hear live an exciting piece of 20thC music. Rare and live are important words in the context of this remarkable festival. There were fourteen performances of 4 handed playing and one of 8, this last (the Festival opener in a free concert for Culture Night,) being an arrangement for four pianists at two pianos of Rossini’s ‘William Tell’ overture. Never had The Lone Ranger nor Tonto ever heard it like this, and no recording studio can reproduce the vitality and power of the dynamic sound driven out by Katya Apekisheva, Finghin Collins, Noriko Ogawa and Charles Owen. An abiding memory of that first night is of the Irish Goddess of Cello – Aisling Drury-Byrne – resplendently beautiful, her shoulders draped with silken wrap, astride her chariot cello playing, with delectable purity of sound, ‘The Swan’ from Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of the Animals. Later on Friday, Italian pianist Igor Roma gave a lively interpretation of Liszt’s Spanish Rhapsody in a thrilling demonstration of the virtuosity and technique required to play some of the most difficult piano compositions. A virtue of Collins’ programming is that, after sessions of the more rigorous 20thC compositions, the audience is returned briefly to more familiar pieces for two hands. His Debussy ‘Images’ were played with all the emotional intensity, delicacy of touch and dynamic control that seem a feature of his playing though the depth of his reverie seems so deep sometimes that I fear he’s gone beyond recall.

Apekisheva and Owen played a memorable ‘La Valse’ by Ravel on Saturday and Enrico Pace’s ‘Réminiscences de Don Juan’ displayed his ability in a rousing version of one of Liszt’s most difficult pieces. Saturday’s late night recital left the audience reeling after a long day’s music but no one would have missed for quids the return of Apekisheva and Owen to play the four handed piano version of ‘The Rite of Spring.’ Debussy found Stravinsky’s work ‘haunting, like a beautiful dream.’ The first night audience in Paris in 1913 rioted during the ballet performance, some in annoyance and some in delight. My own grandfather danced in the street with excitement after the premier in London. One hundred years later, it’s still immensely exciting and stirring with its insistent rhythms, its assertion of new beginning and Spring renewal, its primitive instincts and emotions.

Sunday morning, for the day that was in it, was appropriately calmer as Fiachra Garvey played a wonderful Sonata by American 20thC composer Samuel Barber who was persuaded by the pianist Horowitz to include an unplanned fourth movement in the work. Barber’s work was pleasantly full of content and depth when heard alongside other 20thC American music, and he is happy to reference historical European music composition. But Garvey’s winning performance was his Chopin Polonaise, an oft performed work, well known from recordings by all the great piano players, which Garvey firmly stamped as his own. Like his version or not – some thought it over-pedalled, impetuous even – it was a strong performance by an emerging star in the Irish piano sky.

New Ross has acquired the good habit of bilateral trade in classical music. The concert halls of the Far East perform the whole western repertoire, so it’s pertinent to have brought the exquisite ‘Rain Sketch ll’ by Toru Takemitsu eastward to the Barrow-side town. Noriko Ogawa is no stranger to Ireland, she first performed here some 20 years ago, and she must have chuckled at the appropriateness of a rain piece on a showery day in Ross. This piano sketch is as tight in line and content as an ancient bonsai tree. It’s as complete in its world as that ancient bonsai. It conveys a sense of awe and wonder as you ‘walk’ aurally around the piece which is sculpturally dimensional in sound, not moving linearly or two dimensionally from start to finish. It’s like a chord of a thousand sounds but broken into individual notes and sprinkled like rain in sunshine over the listeners. Performed with Noriko’s great delicacy, precision and touch, and with her oriental grace and stature at the piano, the Rain Sketch was a new music. Kathryn Stott then joined Ogawa in a high spirited Lutoslawski transcription of Paganini. Lutoslawski’s work reflected that of Debussy and Ravel both of whose works featured during the weekend.

Finghin Collins held a masterclass for Gary Beecher rehearsing Chopin and Máire Carroll choosing Debussy which was attended by a capacity audience in the Pastoral Hall, Robert Street. Apart from the obvious talent of the pupils, the real surprise was the talent as a teacher of the master pianist himself! This was a fascinating glimpse into the private world of music learning and there was as much to be taken from the lesson by the audience as the pupils from whom we will surely hear more.

Bringing the event to a close on Sunday evening with Liszt was a well chosen climax; as Finghin Collins notes, this is the bicentenary year of ‘perhaps the greatest pianist-composer the world has ever known.’ Collins’ reverence is reflected in his choice of original work and transcriptions by Liszt for both one and two pianos in the Festival programme. Pace and Roma confidently rode through what John Kissane , Festival Chairman, described in his programme notes variously as melody and filigree cadenza-like accompaniment; rapid, thunderous chromatic scales and tempestuous passages; and dirge-like transformation of theme all ending in a peroration emphatically in E major. Sounds like Liszt to me.

For the sixth year, Connie Tantrum and her inspired and hardworking committee have bedazzled a churchful of music lovers. The superlatives begin to sound trite. Make no mistake, however; this is a festival of great quality and choice of programme which engenders feelings of warmth and gratitude in all who are fortunate and wise enough to be there.

As I lie dying, whene’er it be, if I hear the strains of Noriko Ogawa playing again Chopin’s Scherzo #2 in B minor as she did on Sunday then I’ll know I’m for the Higher Place. Otherwise, it’s the furnace…

Jeremy Hill, 053 925 5145

25 to 28 September 2014