Walled City Music Festival

Founders Cathal Breslin and Sabrina Hu lead the opening concert in Derry~Londonderry

David Quigley, Michael McHale, Cathal Breslin, Barry Douglas – it’s a golden era for classical pianists from Northern Ireland. All four have international careers at various stages of development; all four regularly grace platforms on the global concert circuit.

They have one other thing in common: they all give back handsomely to the people and places responsible for nurturing their early talent. Douglas, most famously, presents his annual Clandeboye Festival at Lady Dufferin’s estate near Bangor, mentoring future generations of Irish classical talent.

Quigley’s Newry Chamber Music concerts, co-curated with his violinist sister Joanne, bring top-quality performances to the pianist’s native city, while McHale is also a regular visitor home.

Fresh from a triumphant American concerto debut with the Minnesota Orchestra, he returns to the Ulster Hall in Belfast on July 26 to play Tchaikovsky’s 'First Concerto' with the Ulster Youth Orchestra, whose cello section he led while still a schoolboy at Methodist College.

And Cathal Breslin? He’s a Derry~Londonderryman by birth, and though nowadays based in America – he’s assistant professor of piano at the University of Memphis, Tennessee – he continues to make the long journey home every summer for the Walled City Music festival, which he founded six years ago.

It’s Breslin’s wife Sabrina Hu, however, who is the first of the family to take the platform at the opening concert of this year’s Walled City Music Festival. Hu is a flautist, and leads a sprightly account of Mozart’s chirrupy 'Flute Quartet in D major', abetted by members of the Coull Quartet, the common element in all three works on the evening’s programme.

It’s a breezy piece of easily dissoluble, sorbet-like consistency, and no kind of preparation at all for the heavy meat that follows – the third and final 'String Quartet' by Benjamin Britten, one of the last compositions he worked on, although its premiere postdated by a fortnight his death from heart failure in December 1976.

Though an awareness of mortality undoubtedly stalks the work, it’s a mistake to view it as philosophically moribund, or drained of vital creative juices. It actually bristles with sharpness and invention, qualities which are vividly evident in the Coull Quartet’s outstandingly sympathetic interpretation.

‘Interpretation’ is possibly a misnomer in the context, as this is one of those performances where at the conclusion you realise that you’ve been totally in touch with the music itself, not taking time-outs to reflect on the specific ways in which the players have been shaping and presenting it.

The Coulls are, in other words, a totally selfless ensemble of players: there are no egos intervening, just a deeply seasoned dedication to the message of the music.

That said, it’s hard not to single out leader Roger Coull’s exquisite shaping of the keening semi-soliloquy Britten writes for his instrument in the central solo movement. Or, indeed, the consistently insightful, collegial contributions of cellist Nicholas Roberts in all five movements – string quartet playing at its very finest.

Cathal Breslin himself emerges after the interval, and with the Coull Quartet in tandem launches an ebullient traversal of Schumann’s 'Piano Quintet', a blast of spring awakening in stark contrast to the winter-journey meditations of the Britten quartet’s final movement.

It’s a busy piece for Breslin: there is hardly a bar in which the piano isn’t doing something, and it can easily be allowed to hog the listener’s attention. The strength of Breslin’s playing, however, is so that he’s acutely conscious of when he needs to take the lead melodically, and when that responsibility passes to the other instruments.

In and out he weaves with deftness and sensitivity, making the moments when he really does grasp hold of the music’s throttle all the more arresting. That sense of democratic co-operation between the players is what makes the Breslin-Coull performance of this much-heard masterpiece particularly distinctive.

The slow movement is simply gorgeous, Roger Coull again leading the strings in a ravishing statement of the glowing second subject melody. In the Great Hall of the University of Ulster, Magee Campus the evening sun is still slanting warmly through the windows, and all seems momentarily right with the musical universe.

Walled City Music Festival continues with further recitals featuring Breslin, first with top oboist Nicholas Daniel (July 24), then with violinist Dmitry Sitkovetsky (July 26). In between a roster of young artists from the NI Opera stable present an evening of Mozart arias, including a complete performance of his one-act comic opera The Impresario (July 25). Any or all of these concerts are worthy of the classical enthusiast’s attention.

Walled City Music Festival continues at the various venues in Derry~Londonderry until July 26.