International Festival of Chamber Music

Technique to die for and sweeping rhapsody, the Belfast Music Society deliver their promise of 'world-class' performances

For ten minutes last Saturday evening, in the Great Hall at Queen’s University, it was virtually impossible to imagine Brahms being played better.

The pianist is Nikolai Demidenko, the occasion the Belfast Music Society’s annual International Festival of Chamber Music, the piece Brahms’s 'F minor Sonata'. Demidenko’s account of the work’s andante espressivo slow movement is breath-catching in its beauty, exquisitely phrased and weighted, and bursting with emotion when the music finally burgeoned to an impassioned climax.

Demidenko has technique to die for, and needs it in this sonata, which has pages of fearsome difficulty. You’d go a long way to hear the piece played this well again, and even further to hear it done significantly better.

I have less time for Demidenko’s Beethoven. Before the interval he plays three of the composer’s sonatas (including the ‘Pathétique’ and ‘Moonlight’), clobbering already highly-charged passages in an over-wrought and unduly aggressive fashion.

Some like their Beethoven this way. To me it makes him sound a ranting musical bully. I’d prefer hearing more of the Medtner and Chopin Demidenko gives us in two encores. They are, in turn, magnificently commanding and meltingly tender.

The festival (the 91st) kicks off on Thursday evening with a Russian programme by the Apollon Musagète Quartet. Before they play a note, this Polish group is already visually interesting. Unlike most quartets, the violinists and violist stand to play, only the cellist (of necessity) remaining seated.

This lends an extra element of physical engagement with the music. It leads to a sweepingly rhapsodic approach in Tchaikovsky’s 'Quartet No. 1', and a rollicking, improvisatory impression in the finale of Shostakovich’s 'Fourth Quartet', with its swaggering mimicry of Jewish folk dances. Though young in years, the Apollon Musagète players already show formidable poise and artistry. By tonight's evidence they could be destined for quartet greatness.

Greatness is a quality many already associate with English soprano Susan Bullock, who gives Friday evening’s recital. Part one provided a rare opportunity to hear Wagner’s Wesendonk Lieder in the original piano-accompanied version.

Bullock has a high reputation in Wagner’s operas, the most demanding ever written, and it shows in her riveting traversal of this intense five-song cycle. Outstanding German diction, immense reserves of volume, and a focused intimacy for the quieter moments combine to make her reading special. A clutch of Brahms songs also elicit some searing singing, of a type and quality not frequently heard in Belfast.

Part two brings a rhapsodic group of chansons by Duparc, and a smattering of English songs by Warlock, Bridge and Quilter. Bullock is less idiomatic in these than she in the Germanic repertoire. However, her semi-dramatised performance of ‘Banquo’s Buried’, Australian composer Alison Bauld's interpretation of Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene, is a sharp reminder of why she’s such a galvanising presence on the world’s great opera stages.

Sunday afternoon sees the appearance of Ensemble Avalon, a trio helmed by Belfast-born pianist Michael McHale.

McHale’s exceptional fluidity of touch and exquisite layering of keyboard textures set the tone for nimbly satisfying accounts of trios by Mozart (the 'B flat', 'K502') and Beethoven (his 'Op.1', 'No. 3') in the first half of the programme.

Violinist Ioana Petcu-Colan (currently associate leader of the Ulster Orchestra) and cellist Gerald Peregrine clearly relish the much more prominent parts they play in the Shostakovich 'Piano Trio No. 2' which closes the concert.

Peregrine launches the opening movement with gruesomely exposed harmonics and it ends with the solemnly chorded restatement of the passacaglia theme. This was a vivid and sharply contoured interpretation.

It called down the curtain in style on BMS Festival 2012, which in its pre-publicity had promised a 'world-class' level of performance. It's a promise on which the festival organisers unquestionably delivered.