The Midwinter Festival in Galway focused on early Beethoven this year, and brought a renowned piano-violin partnership to the west. Toner Quinn reviews.
Music for Galway’s Midwinter Festival (17–19 January) was the first major musical event of the European Capital of Culture celebrations in Galway, although the year does not officially get underway until February. Despite all the challenges for Galway 2020, there is a sense that this is going to be an exceptional year for the city and county. Galway has a strong cultural life already. Add in an additional layer and we can’t anticipate the impact it will have.
The Midwinter Festival is an annual event. Artistic Director Finghin Collins and Director Anna Lardi Fogarty chose to focus on Beethoven, consistent with many other events around the world marking the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth.
We don’t need a reason to celebrate this artist, and Music for Galway simply titled the weekend ‘Beethoven’, as opposed to highlighting any particular theme, although the focus was on his early chamber work, pieces written when he was in his twenties and early thirties in Vienna. It was around this period that his hearing began to decline, and his shock at this development culminates in 1802 in what is called the ‘Heiligenstadt Testament’, a letter to his two brothers that he never sent but kept in his papers and asked to be read on his death. It’s a crushing read, in which he gives details of the shame that he felt because he could no longer hear what others were hearing, and he was desperate to hide this fact from those around him.
The works of this period, then, have elements of the extremes in temperament and artistic rule-breaking, all of which is what we love about the composer: he rages, broods, embraces and intensifies, allowing us feel it too, and yet we can still be functioning members of society. The mystery of how he managed to do this perists.
There were just three concerts over the weekend, plus two talks from the musicologist Richard Wigmore, a regular contributor to BBC Radio 3. Indeed, while he was in Galway, he could also be heard on Saturday morning bringing listeners through various versions of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1 as part of the station’s ‘Beethoven Unleashed’ series.
Texture, form, counterpoint
The Friday night opened with ConTempo performing two quartets, Nos 5 and 6 from Opus 18, followed by the Septet for strings and wind, when three of the quartet were joined by John Finucane (clarinet), Amy Harman (bassoon), Hervé Joulain (horn) and Dominic Dudley (double bass).
The Opus 18 set of six quartets is remarkable for the way the composer constantly presents new ideas in new ways. The searching is there, but also his will to keep pushing, a word that appeared several times in one of Wigmore’s talks. The quartets come with a significant role for the first violin, Bogdan Sofei playing with a lightness of touch across the melodic runs. Despite the composer’s playing with texture, the works remain in the late Classical style, but I couldn’t help thinking how ConTempo were making these works feel part of our time. Their connection as a quartet allows them, however briefly, to follow Beethoven down experimental alleys of texture, form and counterpoint, maybe even more than the composer intended, and so the performance swayed between many emotions and felt more urgent to me as a result.
There is a passage in the third movement of the fifth quartet that has all the qualities of walking through a fairgound and hearing a musical theme from one of the rides. ConTempo went from an intense, swirling Wurlitzer-like texture to a nonchalant Adrian Mantu on cello, with complete oneness.
ConTempo’s bond also meant that the Septet in the second half initially felt less fluent, although by the time the jaunty opening melody of the third movement came about, we could simply enjoy the bringing together of musicians in this collaborative atmosphere.
Saturday featured French pianist Cédric Tiberghien, who is involved in Wigmore Hall’s Beethoven 250 celebrations, performing the composer’s complete set of piano variations over the next two seasons. In Galway, he played the Twelve Variations on Haibel’s ‘Menuett à la Viganò’, the Quintet in E flat for piano and winds with Aisling Casey (oboe), Finucane, Harman and Joulain, Variations on an Original Theme in F, Op. 34, and the ‘Eroica’ variations. The Opus 34 has this unstable diminished chord right at the climax of its theme, and you hear hints of it throughout in Tiberghien’s careful articulation, while the Quintet for piano and winds was full of expressive moments from all five musicians. The Eroica, however, is a momentous fifteen-movement work, where Beethoven imposes great contrasts in dynamics and style. Tiberghien’s versatility as a performer is often remarked upon – he has recorded everything from Bach to Britten – and his technical brilliance allowed him to find space in passages where there appeared to be none, such as the fugue finale.
The highlight of the weekend, however, was the concert presented on Sunday afternoon by Tiberghien and his musical partner violinist Alina Ibragimova. Together they have made three live recordings of Beethoven sonatas at Wigmore Hall. In Galway they played Sonatas 2 and 3 and the ‘Kreutzer’ Sonata, in which Beethoven stretches the technical abilities of both with electric effect. The pair are well matched, Ibragimova’s bow seeming to hit the strings so smoothly, Tiberghien able to find the space around her intense violin part, and there was, as the first movement ended, a rattle of deep appreciation from the audience at their skill. The presto jig in the third movement had similar intensity. This was visionary Beethoven, presenting a huge challenge to performers, the creative drive at the heart of the work still difficult to comprehend.
The year ahead
It was during the ‘Kreutzer’, however, that I thought of how little the performers were getting back from the room in terms of acoustic. It must be punishing in such a technically challenging work, and one wonders what it would be like if Galway had a custom-made music venue to welcome performers like these. This is not a new issue, but it is one that we will inevitably think about a lot more over the coming Galway 2020 year.
Nonetheless, I came away from the weekend with a new curiosity about these early works and what it is precisely about this man that has seen him travel to us through a quarter of a millennium. In a BBC discussion last week, the American conductor Marin Alsop said it was the fact that he showed us what challenges humans are capable of persevering through and overcoming, though she was reluctant to use the word ‘triumphed’. Alsop is presenting global performances of the Ninth Symphony this year in what she calls ‘A Global Ode to Joy’, an attempt to bring people together at a time of division. Would any other composer inspire this kind of initiative? Tiberghien and Ibragimova certainly connected the entire room. You may seek out their live Wigmore recordings, close your eyes, and pretend you were there at the Town Hall Theatre, but let it be your wake-up call. Galway is going to come alive this year. As with Beethoven, the connections will be long-lasting.
For upcoming Music for Galway events, visit https://musicforgalway.ie/