Happy Days

Samuel Beckett would have approved of the programme of concerts at the Enniskillen festival in his honour

It's long (24 songs in total, duration 75 minutes), demanding on both singer and listener, and almost unrelievedly gloomy in charting the story of a jilted lover treading his lonely path to spiritual perdition.

So what was Schubert's song-cycle Winterreise doing at the Happy Days Enniskillen International Beckett Festival, the inaugural arts festival celebrating the Irish writer whom many consider to be the greatest playwright of the 20th century?

The simple answer is that Beckett adored classical music. Ghost Trio, Ohio Impromptu, Nacht und Träume: references to music dot the titles of his writings, snippets are included in it. The writing itself, with its obsessive attention to rhythm, pitch, cadences and structure, is impregnated with musical influences.

Small wonder, then, that Seán Doran, director of the Happy Days Festival, took such pains in scheduling a world-class strand of classical music at the festival, matching repertoire to what is known about Beckett's own musical predilections.

To return to Winterreise – it was Beckett's single favourite work of music, and therefore top of Doran's list of pieces to be scheduled at the festival’s four main classical concerts. The cycle was sung at Happy Days by the acclaimed English tenor Ian Bostridge, in St Macartin's Cathedral. It's a work that Bostridge has performed many times, and recorded for both CD and film.

Bostridge's was a markedly dramatic interpretation, and also highly gestural. Physically, he struck a wide variety of poses and postures, the Steinway becoming virtually a prop on occasions. Vocally, words and music were wrestled, at times virtually bullied, into shapes graphically illustrating the wrangled emotions of the protagonist.

The impact was undeniably visceral, but Bostridge's lurching, interventionist style of declamation could grate on repetition, and seem unduly didactic. When he did sing an evenly sustained legato, in the wonderful 'Das Wirtshaus' ('The Inn') near the cycle's conclusion, the effect was momentarily mesmeric.

For all its undoubted commitment and intensity this, for me, wasn't a Winterreise to rip your heart out. It stormed, it raged, and it emoted aplenty – but along the way a measure of the work's inner pain and introspection went missing.

There was more Schubert in an immaculate recital by the Vienna Piano Trio, across the road in Darling Street Methodist Church. The composer's single-movement Notturno distilled the kind of ethereal, achingly poetic ambiance that Beckett himself often achieved in his prose and dramatic writings.

Beethoven's 'Archduke' Trio was given a bubbling, effervescent performance, full of wit, spontaneity and sharply observed detailing. So too was Haydn's 'Trio in A major', pianist Stefan Mendl particularly catching the ear with playing of twinkling joie de vivre.

Later, in the adjoining St Michael's Church, the Vienna Trio played again, at one of the festival's 'Precious Little Afternoon Recitals' (free, and a wonderful initiative).

This time it was the slow movement of Beethoven's 'Ghost’ Trio, performed twice in succession, a nod to Beckett's Waiting for Godot, a play in which, as critic Vivian Mercier famously put it, 'nothing happens, twice'.

The Vienna Trio's two traversals of the movement were again beautifully played and calibrated, and a rare opportunity to press the replay button immediately on an outstanding piece of music-making in a 'live' situation. Beckett would undoubtedly have loved it.

Recitals by two female singers rounded off the festival's classical offering. First up was Sophie Daneman (pictured above), whose self-curated programme featuring composers and poets particularly close to Beckett's heart illuminated a dull, rainy Bank Holiday Monday.

Daneman's is a gorgeously airy soprano, with a quick, pliable vibrato perfectly suited to the vernal freshness of Mendelssohn's 'Auf Flügeln des Gesanges', with which she opened the recital.

There was, inevitably, more Schubert – Daneman's riveting account of the dramatic story-song Erlkönig, in which she differentiated graphically between the characters of the father and his frightened son, was for me a high-point not only of her programme, but of the entire festival.

A French section, featuring poets beloved by Beckett (Verlaine, Lamartine, Apollinaire), was delectably successful, especially the closing group of mélodies by Poulenc, one of which (‘Sanglots’) ended with that inimitably Parisian sentiment 'I don't want to work, I want to smoke.'

Daneman’s was a wonderfully intelligent, charmingly sung recital, accompanied with exquisite sensitivity by pianist Julius Drake, whose playing for the festival soloists was consistently of the highest calibre.

For the festival finale, we shifted to the idyllic surroundings of Castle Coole, for the closing concert by mezzo-soprano Ruby Philogene, a singer combining rich, creamy tonal quality with an enviable evenness of production throughout her vocal register.

Philogene is also a recitalist to her fingertips, engaging the audience’s attention by her unstinting emotional commitment and discriminating musical intelligence.

Nothing was forced, nothing over-wrought or underlined too insistently: in songs by Schubert, Brahms, Strauss and Fauré this was immaculately tasteful singing, and a deeply satisfying conclusion to an inspirational weekend’s music-making.