New Ross Piano Festival [A Review of 2012 and a Preview of 2013, 26-29 September]

Written by: Francesco Burns

Finghin Collins. Photograph: Mark Stedman

Last year in September was my second visit to the small, picturesque town of New Ross in County Wexford, Ireland. Pianofiles cannot ask for much more than a festival across four full days. What is more, the acoustic in St Mary’s Church, the main concert venue, rivals many of the great chamber-music acoustics available. 2011’s series was a highly enjoyable spotlight on works for two pianos. Last year, the first evening concert was given by Irish jazz pianist Fergus Sheil. His delicate and sensitive touch served the succession of standards beautifully, full of carefully voiced chords and intimate improvisations.

The series proper kicked off with the ever-inspiring Finghin Collins, the Festival’s Artistic Director and Resident Pianist. In 2011 he showed himself to have a particularly deep, romantic sound which one feels has been somewhat lost by the pantheon of pianists today. This was evidenced in no uncertain terms in his reading of Brahms’s Two Rhapsodies (Opus 79). Collins gesticulates at the keyboard, his playing very physically demonstrative. One really gets the sense he is striving for an experience outside the piano, to such a degree that the variety of colour and tone production is of an orchestral nature.

Another emerging talent on the playbill was Cleveland International Piano Competition winner Martina FilJak, who closed the concert with an impressively balanced and clear reading of Beethoven’s ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata, which was especially so in the massive fugue in the finale. The following day she returned to give a performance of Scriabin’s Left-hand Nocturne, Albeniz’s ‘Triana’ of startling facility, and closing with Balakirev’s Islamey, handled with a nonchalant ease. I suspect many readers will feel the same as I do, either a sense of jealousy or disbelief that someone born in 1994 would give a recital including works such as Chopin’s Fourth Ballade and Liszt’s Second Hungarian Rhapsody. Melodie Zhao did just that on Saturday lunch-time however, showing a solid technique and virtuosity which, once added to the experience that only ageing can bring, will serve her reading of Beethoven’s ‘Waldstein’ Sonata very well. The energy and impulsivity of her playing was thrilling in the Liszt especially, and she impressed with Ravel’s Sonatine.

It wasn’t just the Romantic repertoire that was well represented, however, as on the Saturday evening Hugh Tinney gave a concert entitled “John Cage and his influences”, which included the Five Prepared Piano Sonatas. Greek pianist Dimitri Papadimitriou opened the Sunday with a Russian programme of Shostakovich, Scriabin, Rachmaninov and Prokofiev, followed by the final concert in a bigger church. Resident artists were joined by the RTE Concert Orchestra in a three-concerto programme. As I had to rush back up to Dublin to catch a flight back to London, I missed Collins directing from the keyboard Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.20 in D minor (K466).

As for the surrounding areas of New Ross, Wexford and Waterford, this is a quiet place, if not with a lack of things to see: the farm where one of President Kennedy’s lineage begins; a replica of a famine ship which brought ancestors like his to the New World; and the famous Waterford Crystal Factory. This weekend is about the concerts though, and year by year this Festival is going from strength to strength.

In September 2013 there will be, amongst others, Collins, Lilya Zilberstein and Ilya Gringolts. 2013’s Festival is to have a distinctly Russian accent, and an all-American programme to mark the 50th-anniversary of President Kennedy’s visit to New Ross in 1963. The programme will include Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and Rzewski’s Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues, a rarely head, wonderful work. The winner of the Dublin International Piano Competition Nikolay Khozyainov will give a recital of Chopin, Rachmaninov and Liszt. The RTE Vanbrugh Quartet will perform Shostakovich’s Piano Quintet with artistic director Collins, and later Boris Tchaikovsky’s Piano Quintet with Khozyainov.

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