'Whenever I hear Brahms' music I feel spine tinglingly alive'

Pianist Finghin Collins on Music For Galway's new season of classical concerts

Johannes Brahms.

Johannes Brahms.

SYBIL FAWLTY may not have appreciated the eternal genius of Johannes Brahms, calling his Symphony No 3 "that racket". Thankfully Galway has a better appreciation of the man's music than Basil's "little nest of vipers".

Brahms is the central focus of Music For Galway's 2016-2017 season, entitled Aimez-vous Brahms, after Francois Sagan's 1959 novel ("the main characters fall in love to Brahms music," says Finghin Collins ), with the programme being launched on Tuesday, and much to Galway's delight - though not Sybil Fawlty's - the third symphony will be performed by the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra in Leisureland in April. There will also be concerts from Elizabeth Cooney, Hugh Tinney, Malcolm Proud, and ConTempo, among others, as well as a performance of Handel's Messiah and the annual mid-winter festival.

The programme has been selected by the acclaimed pianist and MFG's artistic director, Finghin Collins, who will also be performing throughout the season. We began our Tuesday afternoon discussion on why Brahms, close to 120 years after his death, continues to matter.

"Brahms is the natural inheritor to the tradition of Bach and Beethoven, and he very much felt their presence in the background," Finghin tells me. "He is one of the most important composers of the Romantic period and the 19th century. He managed to combine a very strong sense of structure with a great gift for lyrical melody, and a searing intimacy in his music, which build to passionate climaxes. Whenever I hear Brahms' music I feel spine tinglingly alive, such is the freshness of the melody and the excitement of the structures. His impact was such that he influenced many composers who came after him, particularly Dvorak and Tchaikovsky."

Finghin also notes how much of Brahms' music "fits in well" with the overall thrust of Music for Galway's seasons, "as we are primarily about chamber music", and NUI Galway's Aula Maxima is "an ideal venue for chamber music". Says Finghin: "Brahms wrote an incredible variety of chamber music for an incredible variety of instruments, and with this season I want to introduce people to it, and get to know it better."

The season is also a chance to get to know the man as well as the artist, with a concert, Beloved Clara, inspired by the composer's relationship with Clara and Robert Schumann - featuring pianist Lucy Parham and actors Derbhle Crotty and Henry Goodman - as well as two free lectures on aspects of Brahms' life from musicologist Gerry Murphy.

Clara and Robert Schumann

"Brahms is an interesting personality," says Finghin. "He was very conflicted. He had difficult relationships with women. Never married, but fell in love, but found it hard to settle down. One of Gerry Murphy's talks will look at the women in his life and the relationships he had with them, of one kind or another. The Clara and Robert Schumann-Brahms love triangle has fascinated musicians for generations. Clara was an outstanding pianist and composer in her own right and Brahms often sought her advice. When Robert died, the two became very close."

Brahms is not the sole, entire focus of the season, though, as shown by what is always a major part of any Music For Galway line-up - the annual mid-winter festival, and this year's theme is Prodigy and will focus on child geniuses within classical music.

"'Child genius' is a term often bandied about by parents," says Finghin, but in the case of the composers featured here - Schubert, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Prokofiev, etc - it's true. They wrote incredible music in their early years. Some are very well known, others like Arriaga, not so much. He was a Spanish composer, called 'The Spanish Mozart'. He died at 19. All the music featured in the programme was written by or at 18 years of age. These are works of incredible intimacy and maturity. These are masterpieces and are part of the classical repertoire."

Indeed a contemporary child prodigy will be performing at the midwinter festival - the 11-year-old Irish-German pianist and composer Alma Deutscher, who will give her own concert on Saturday January 21 at 2pm in the Town Hall Theatre, performing Beethoven and Clara Schumann. Her own Variations in Eb Major will be performed on January 20.

Other concerts to look forward to will be the opening concert from France's Quatuor Van Kuijk - their photo in the MFG programme strongly recalls The Beatles in A Hard Day's Night - on September 28 in NUIG. They were winners of the Wigmore Hall International String Quartet Competition 2015. "I'll be joining them, along with Andreea Banciu of ConTempo, performing Hayden and two stunning masterpieces from Brahms, the Viola Quintet in Gm and Piano Quintet in Fm," says Finghin.

Finghin will also be in concert with fellow pianist, Frenchman Cédric Tiberghien, (NUIG, May 4 ), where the programme will include Brahms' 21 Hungarian Dances (For Four Hands ).

"I have collaborated with Cédric in concerts in Ireland, France, and Switzerland," says Finghin. "He's one of the top pianists in Europe. For the first half of the concert we will each play solo. For the second half, we will play the 21 Dances at one piano. It's beautiful music, a lot of people will know the Dances, but it takes a lot of complex rehearsals to get the tempo and physicality right. I'll be playing one part and Cédric will have to have his arms in between mine to play his!"

Another highlight will be New York's Jack Quartet (November 4 ), whom the Boston Globe has called "superheroes of the new music world", for a concert of 21st century classical music, including Caroline Shaw's Ritornello (see video below ). "This will be a one hour concert of really cutting edge music," says Finghin. "The music will not be familar, but it's a chance to hear something new, and the Jack Quartet are leaders in their field."

For full details on the programme see www.musicforgalway.ie

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