Reviewed by Jeremy Hill, Echo Newspapers


Once upon a time all roads led to Rome; but not so this past weekend in Barrowside New Ross whose steep and narrow medieval streets led unerringly to the platform of the town’s 10th Piano Festival. They have done so for a decade now and over those years they’ve played their part in a masterclass of musical experience. New York might have Carnegie Hall and London the Wigmore, but New Ross has St. Mary’s Church, standing contentedly on the site of Norman knight William Marshall’s earlier 13th century ecclesiastical building, and erected before the days of acoustic engineering. St. Mary’s interior resonates with a sound unequalled by its competitors to the delight of composer, musician and audience alike.

The festival’s committee set out in 2006 with a simple mission – to celebrate the virtuosity, versatility and variety of music and emotions that are associated with the piano and with pianists. It was an all Irish cast that year in a programme from the established repertoire but slowly, yet surely, artistic director Finghin Collins and Connie Tantrum’s inspired festival committee introduced elements of more challenging and contemporary composition including the commissioning of a fascinating cycle of work (to be completed next year) relating to the panels of the historical Ros Tapestry by some of today’s active Irish composers. It is to the festival’s credit that it learned to walk before it ran. From parochial beginnings, it is now an important and weighty provincial event graced by the presence of international pianists and sophisticated programme planning. Mainstream composition now sits happily alongside the avant garde; and although it is now a one hundred year old work, Schoenberg’s ‘Verklärte Nacht’ is an appropriate metaphor for the transfigured audience that now craves this September musical fix. Festival audiences now relish the inclusion of work such as Rzewski’s ‘Winnsboro Cotton Mills,’ Hugh Tinney’s ‘John Cage and his influences,’ and Takemitsu’s ‘Rain Tree Sketch ll.’ No wonder they’re able for Caplet, Dutilleux, Ye Xiaogang, Alban Berg or anyone else who’s offered. The educative element of Collins’ programming is another example of the festival’s strength and relevance.

Fittingly, it was Finghin Collins who was first to the platform this year in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto #3. A relatively well known concerto, it puts it up to the pianist for instant comparison with his peers, yet he is one who can mix it with the best and the audience warmth for one if its own was reflected in a typically assured performance where he was both conductor and pianist. Finghin wrung the musicality from the composer’s score as water is squeezed from linen on laundry day. He showed that he is a gifted professional; he is practised and studious and his sometimes exaggerated body movement at the piano is not showmanship but a mannerism of engagement with the performance. However, after a full and warm introduction of the concerto by the orchestral strings, there were times when the piano struggled to rise against the strength of the orchestra which wasn’t helped by an acoustic problem – but perhaps only 8 rows back. The piano struggled to match the orchestral element throughout Cédric Tiberghien’s Mendelssohn concerto but the Scriabin score gave Alexie Grynyuk half a chance. The RTE Concert Orchestra itself was fine, but the overall programme was not helped by its excessive dynamic nor the physics of reflected, reverberating sound waves within the church.

Redemption came at Saturday’s midday recital when a waifish Olga Scheps, suffering a head cold, gave a memorable performance of the Romantic style of piano playing. Never having heard Claudio Arrau or Alfred Brendel (the two great Romantic proponents) playing live, there was a gap in my life – but no longer. Opening with a crystal clear Chopin nocturne, she included Rachmaninov’s ‘Vocalise’ along with a Chopin Ballade. Scheps plays with great sensitivity and delicacy though, after a quickly taken first encore, she followed up with an explosive Prokofiev piece by which we were fully informed that, feminine though she might be, it wouldn’t stop her playing like a man when required. She made the tap rooms roar in appreciation for there is nothing like Russian blood to deliver Russian music. In the latter decades of the 19th century, Vienna was the centre of radical intellectual development in the arts and medicine. Freud was exploring psychoanalysis, the School of Medicine realised that the truth of illness lay hidden beneath the skin, and artists like Klimt, Schiele and Kokoshka painted evocative expressions of unconscious lust, desire and fear of death. Composers of music (Schoenberg, Berg and Webern) explored tonal music which abandoned standard chromatic harmony in their keyless 12 note serialisations. Alban Berg is perhaps the most accessible of these three but he still makes an audience do a bit of work. Cédric Tiberghien’s passionate playing of Berg’s Piano Sonata was an invitation to the audience to engage with this ‘new’ music, and by including it along with a Mozart sonata he was suggesting that if Mozart’s is music then so is Berg’s. Those who stayed on for the late night concert enjoyed the Fidelio Trio in a beautiful rendering of Schoenberg’s ‘Verklärte Nacht’ which is the treasure piece in the tonal oeuvre. Inspired by a poem describing a woman’s confession to her husband that she was pregnant to another man, and ultimately receiving loving forgiveness, the very nature of Shoenberg’s new form of music reflects an enlightened reaction to the deceit. “Two people walk on through the high, bright night” Richard Dehmel’s poem ends.

A very moving performance by Alexei Grynyuk of Schubert’s death bed Piano Sonata in A major was replete with sadness over his life’s imminent end, but recalled his years of pleasure with reminder phrases from his brilliant scherzos. This sonata is not an easy play for the pianist nor an easy listen, it demands stamina and concentration all-round. But what do you then say of Stravinsky’s three movements from Pétrouchka with its hideously difficult score which only few can master? The rapid and ongoing switching of time signatures and rhythms seems as random as the streams of consciousness which James Joyce employed in his revolutionarily structured tales of Finnegan’s Wake and Ulysses. But, of course, they’re not random though it takes a musicologist to untangle the apparent jumble. The listener is bedazzled by the innovative harmonies as much as by the sight of flashing hands crossing and stretching the width of the keyboard while the cacophony of sounds from the piano manages to conjure a response of exhilarating pleasure. Aurally and visually Grynuk’s performance was as breathtaking as it was thrilling. The music was a deep contrast to Daria van den Bercken’s recital of Handel and Mozart whose music comes from the early and mid 18th century with its ordered and simpler structure. Handel’s piano music is somewhat unfashionable – it’s not flashy and the pianist’s challenge is to keep it simple. That’s not say it’s easy but Daria’s controlled and tempered meter, along with a womanly sensibility was a revelation that the audience absorbed with gusto. Hers was an unexpectedly commanding performance. The weekend was brought to a close by two boys romping at the piano with joy in a duet and playing 21 gypsy tunes of Brahms’ Hungarian Dances in a 50 minute performance. Finghin Collins and Cédric Tiberghien brought a spontaneous sense of fun to light up the authenticity of genuine folk music in just the way a spontaneous session of traditional musicians wins any day against a staged performance. You can’t beat a bit of crack, serious and all though this festival is.

The South East Young Pianists’ concert was, as in previous years, a valuable insight into the amount of precocious musical talent in the region. Notable performances included 11 years old Emma Murphy’s Mozart sonata, sisters Katie and Grace Mercer’s duets by Fauré and Schubert and Kevin Ye’s Chopin ‘Revolutionary’ Etude. Niamh McCann’s sensitive and studied delivery of Frank Bridge’s Canzonetta was perfectly pitched in tempo and dynamic; hers was the best performance in an evening of high standards.

Last but not least mention must be made of the five more world premières commissioned this year to respond to panels of the Ros Tapestry. This brilliant conception of the festival committee brings to the audience contemporaneous music as fresh as bread. The five loaves delivered this year outdid Stafford’s, Pat the Baker’s or Granny’s homemade brown cake by the van load. Where in the world would you be going if not to New Ross for a feast of class piano playing by international pianists in the most perfect concert hall – St. Mary’s Church?
Jeremy Hill – Echo Newspapers

25 to 28 September 2014