Belfast Music Society Festival

Philip Hammond takes in two concerts at the Great Hall at Queen's University, featuring new work by Derry composer Kevin O'Connell and a performance by Russian pianist Alexander Melnikov

Chamber music festivals are a singular and rare delight in Northern Ireland. The Belfast Music Society (BMS), with minimum public funding and maximum voluntary input, has managed for about a decade now to maintain and support this endangered species but, alas, gone are the days when chamber music concerts could field an audience of hundreds.

Within my lifetime of several decades, I can recall full Whitla Halls at Queen's University for the type of artist being presented in Belfast by the once named British Music Society. The calibre of artist certainly has not changed but the habits of the concert-going public unfortunately has.

A typical chamber music audience can now fit neatly into the more intimate surrounds of the Great Hall at Queen’s University, and it is in this attractive and acoustically suitable venue that the BMS presents its annual festival again this year.

It’s a chilly Saturday evening in late February and the Kungsbacka Piano Trio are performing to a small but averagely sized group of people, most of whom I can recognise as cognoscenti and aficionados of the genre.

The Kungsbacka take their name from the Swedish town where they first performed back in 1997. Since then, the trio has won a number of important chamber music awards and can now count themselves amongst the elite performers of their generation.

One of the imaginative features of the BMS is its interest in commissioning new music for the chamber music repertoire. And it is for that reason that I am at this concert, to hear a new work by Derry-born composer Kevin O’Connell who has been based in Dublin for many years now. O’Connell gives a 20-minute talk about his new piece before the concert begins and deftly hints at the content and musical context of his new 'Piano Trio No.2'.

O’Connell notes some of the inherent difficulties of writing for this particular medium – for example,  the possible imbalance of the combination of a powerful piano and two less imposing instruments. He also amusingly refers to the fact that filling even ten minutes worth of otherwise silence is not an easy job for a composer.

The piquant pointillism and angular melodic start to 'Connell’s new trio draws in its listeners with familiar musical techniques, like scale-ic passages, or sharp contrasts of dynamic, and a welcome lack of mere technical gimmickry. The trio turns out to be a series of short episodes linked in a chain-like fashion with musically logical but relatively short transitions.

Repeated notes create a sense of tonal centring and lively rhythms lend a drama to the sounds, with snippets of melodic material peeking through the busy textures of the trio medium, enhanced by the pizzicatos tiptoeing through the musical landscape of the new piece. This new work successfully engages its listeners, certainly at an intellectual level.

As the BMS festival unfolds over the weekend, I return to the Great Hall at Queen’s on Sunday afternoon for a piano recital. Russian pianist Alexander Melnikov early in his career received the imprimatur of none other than the great Sviatoslav Richter. The one time I witnessed Richter performing live was in Belfast in the 1960s. By a strange coincidence, Richter completed his programme then with Schumann's 'Etudes Symphoniques', which also provides the highlight of this Sunday afternoon concert. 

Melnikov begins, however,  with a colourful journey through Schubert's 'Wandererfantasie'. He robustly contrasts the chordal opening motif with some of the more lyrical themes and makes full use of the Steinway Model D piano's huge reserves of sound creation. This is an approach which some may see as too modern, too full-blooded.

But I am intrigued by Melnikov's 'romantic' approach, his wide ranging dynamics, and, most especially, by his big 'Russian' technique, which is characterised by finger strength and dexterity, minimal and understated physical movement and total control of tone and sonority. At times in the final fugue, Melnikov engenders an atmosphere of almost Liszt-ian proportions.

He follows that Schubert fantasy with the Op.116 set of piano pieces by Brahms. Although the set is overall entitled 'fantasies', each piece is individually named perhaps counterintuitively either a 'capriccio' or an 'intermezzo', the latter being more ruminative while the former are more extroverted.

Again, Melnikov plays the virtuoso card to the full, eschewing by and large the oft quoted 'grey resignation' of the later piano pieces by Brahms and emphasising the restless energy still underlying so much of the writing. As a result,  the complete set never sinks into melancholy but rather moves forward constantly with a wider emotional momentum. It seems easy in this playing to understand the linear movement of each piece in relation to its counterparts. And behind all of this, Melnikov produces thoughtful and beautiful pianistic sounds.

Schumann's 'Etudes Symphoniques' are conceived on a grand scale and follow through on the fantasy theme suggested throughout this intriguing programme. This element largely is encompassed by the fantasy figures of Schumann's imagination and, although there are no specific references, Florestan and Eusebius in particular pervade the emotional construct of the variations. 

Melnikov gives time for each phrase of this music to register but still maintains the propulsion of the music. He seems to be completely and instinctively aware of the differentials of each register of the piano and there is a constantly changing set of sounds and colours to keep the listener involved in the flow of the music.   

Throughout, however, he shows his great skill at placing each note, each musical sentence in perspective and all the difficulties of this set of variations are concealed beneath and validated by Melnikov's understated but nonetheless apparent virtuosic playing. I am reminded that an exhilarating performance like this, presented by the BMS, is something which only chamber music concert attendees can get the opportunity to experience.