Northern Ireland’s Clandeboye Festival opens with a fine Brahms concert  

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Clandeboye Festival 2022 [1] – Brahms: Barry Douglas (piano), Ailish Tynan (soprano), Elina Vähälä (violin), Michael d’Arcy (violin), Angus McCall (cello), Justine Gormley (piano), Ed Creedon (viola), Henri Demarquette (cello). Clandeboye Estate, County Down, Northern Ireland, 20.8.2022. (RB)

Barry Douglas

Brahms – Piano Trio in C, Op 87; Selection of Songs: Nachtigallen schwingen, Op.6, No.6; Das Mädchen spricht, Op.107, No.3; Volkslied, Op.7, No.4; Die Trauernde, Op.7, No.5; Unbewegte Laue luft, Op.57, No.8; Vergeblisches Ständchen, Op.84, No.4; Piano Quintet in F Minor, Op 34

The Clandeboye Festival is a chamber music festival which takes place every year at the imposing 2,000-acre Clandeboye Estate which is located on the outskirts of the popular seaside town of Bangor in Northern Ireland.  The courtyard of the estate consists of several grand buildings dating from the early eighteenth- century including a banqueting hall which hosts the concerts of the festival. The opening concert of this year’s festival was a celebration of Lady Dufferin, the former owner of the Clanbdeboye Estate and a keen conservationist, who sadly passed away in late 2020. The theme of the festival was ‘Renewal and Renaissance’ designed to symbolise the rebirth of live music making after the Covid lockdowns.

The opening work in the programme was Brahms’s Piano Trio in C which was written between 1880 and 1882 when the composer was 49.  It was a relatively late work and held in high regard by the self-critical composer who wrote to his publisher that they had ‘not yet had such a beautiful trio from me and very likely have not published its equal in the last ten years’. There was much to admire in this performance from Barry Douglas, Elina Vähälä and Angus McCall. The string players produced rich, vibrant unison lines in the opening movement and blended well together. Douglas kept Brahms’s intricate textures remarkably light and achieved a good balance with the strings.  The anguished variations of the second movement were played with enormous feeling. Douglas coaxed some gorgeous tone colours from his Steinway in the heady Romantic melodies. The opening semiquavers of the Scherzo were crisply articulated and tightly coordinated.  All three players performed with enormous energy while at the same time ensuring the textures remained light and soft.  Vähälä and McCall produced a wonderful blend of rich harmonies in the trio section, bringing out the autumnal warmth of the music.  In the Finale there was excellent interplay between all three players and a wide variety of textures and sonorities before the arresting coda drove the work to its bracing conclusion.

Ailish Tynan and Justine Gormley next performed a collection of six songs by Brahms. The programme did not make it clear the songs the duo would be performing although Tynan gave a very illuminating introduction to the set at the start of her performance. The opening two songs depicted nightingales and swallows respectively. Tynan sang with great vibrancy and her diction was first rate while Gormley did an excellent job depicting the fluttering of the birds. The next two songs were sombre folk settings and here Tynan and Gormley evoked very successfully the melancholy mood and atmosphere.  The final song in the set depicted an attempted seduction.  Tynan sang with great wit and charm and really brought the drama to life.

The closing work on the programme was Brahms’s F Minor Piano Quintet, for which Barry Douglas was joined by Elina Vähälä, Michael d’Arcy, Ed Creedon and Henri Demarquette. This is one of the great staples of the repertoire. Brahms wrote it in the summer of 1864 and it was published the following year. The composition began life as a string quintet, after which Brahms transcribed it into a work for two pianos before giving it its final quintet form.

All five players brough power and dynamism to the opening movement which emerged with symphonic depth and gravitas. Douglas in particular has a big, masculine sound which particularly suits this music and I was impressed with his handling of the whirling piano figurations of the opening. The slow movement was luminous and tender; the piano and strings allowed it to bloom in a poetic and rapturous way. In the opening section of the Scherzo the strings did an excellent job capturing the very unsettled nature of this movement. All five players brought an adrenaline rush to the music with its rhythmic energy and breathless syncopations, while Douglas brought unbridled power to the climax points. The extraordinary introduction to the Finale with its rising semitone figures occasionally lacked focus although this is a minor quibble. As the movement progressed, the music once again caught fire and one was increasingly caught up in the urgency, drama and dark turbulence of the work. It was a barnstorming performance – world class playing – by all five players and one of the best live performances I have heard.

This was a great opening to the Festival and a fitting tribute to Lady Dufferin.

Robert Beattie

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