IN 1770, a child was born in the city of Bonn, then part of the Holy Roman Empire, who would go on to become a towering genius of music. His name was Ludwig van Beethoven.
His compositions are among the greatest and most recognisable in classical music – the ‘Moonlight’ Sonata, Für Elise, the Fifth and Ninth symphonies - and are among the most extraordinary ever composed. Indeed, the ‘Ode To Joy’ segment of the Ninth is used as the Anthem of Europe. Such a figure is more than worthy of celebration, and given 2020 marks the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, it is fitting that Music for Galway’s annual mid-winter festival should focus on the great man.
The festival, simply entitled Beethoven, takes place in the Town Hall Theatre from Friday January 17 to Sunday 19, and will feature concerts and talks, from a host of Irish and international musicians, including Cédric Tiberghien and Alina Ibragimova, as well as musicologist Richard Wigmore. “It was a no brainer for us to run a Beethoven festival this year,” Music for Galway’s artistic director Finghin Collins tells me, as we sit for the interview in NUI Galway, “and 2020 seems to have a lot of anniversaries, with Beethoven, and St Nicholas’ Collegiate Church being 700 years old.”
Given the festival is taking place at the start of the year, it will focus primarily – though not exclusively – on Beethoven’s early solo piano and chamber music compositions.
“There will be so much Beethoven in 2020, that instead of trying to focus on the whole of his career, let’s focus on one part,” says Finghin, “and since it’s the beginning of the year, why not the early years of the life of Beethoven, and the pieces he wrote before the age of 30? Many of his finest chamber works are from his early period, so in that sense we thought it was the most interesting.”
The opening concert on Friday 17 at 8pm will see the ConTempo Quartet [pictured above] performing the Opus 18 string quartets, Nos 5 and 6, and the famous Septet Op 20. “String quartets span Beethoven’s entire career,” says Finghin, “but the first six are the Opus 18s, and they are revolutionary. They are full of youthful energy, vibrancy, and enthusiasm. The Septet has an unusual of combination of instruments, with bassoon, horn, and double bass. It is probably his finest large-scale ensemble piece.”
'One of the great duos of our time'
A highlight of the festival, and something of a coup for MfG, will be the appearances of French pianist Cédric Tiberghien [pictured above] and Russian vilolinist Alina Ibragimova – two major classical music stars and two of the foremost contemporary performers of Beethoven. “Alina and Cédric are a very established duo,” Finghin says. “They work together a lot, have done for about 15 years. They have made many recordings together, they have received numerous awards, they are the top, one of the great duos of our time.”
'Alina's performances are very rooted in the classical style, a style very close to that of Beethoven, a very honest and authentic style of playing'
Tiberghien will give the Saturday 18 concert at 8pm, performing the 12 Variations on ‘Minuet a la Vigano’, the Quintet with Winds Op 16, the Variations in F Op 34, and the Eroica Variations.
“Everyone knows Beethoven was wonderful at writing piano sonatas, there were 32 in all, but for a change, we’re focusing on the fact he was a master of the variation form,” says Finghin, “which means he would write a theme and then explore all the variations on that, something he did very well, a tradition he inherited from Bach, who wrote the Goldberg Variations.”
Finghin also points out how the Quintet with Winds can be seen as a “homage to Mozart in a way.” “It was very much inspired by Mozart, who Beethoven was very much in awe of,” he says. “When Beethoven came to Vienna, Mozart had just died, and there was this frenzy of admiration for Mozart. This Quintet, one of his finest chamber pieces, is very much mirrored on, and in the same key as Mozart’s Quintet K. 452 written in 1784.”
Tiberghien returns for the concluding concert on Sunday 19 at 3pm, but truly the spotlight here will be on Alina Ibragimova [pictured above], who will perform three Beethoven violin sonatas.
“Alina plays on a modern violin and on a period violin,” says Finghin. “Her performances are very rooted in the classical style, a style very close to that of Beethoven, a very honest and authentic style of playing, and really these two are at the height of their powers. Beethoven and Mozart would be their core repertoire and we’re very lucky to have them.”
This concert, and by extension this midwinter festival, will conclude with one of Beethoven’s most celebrated and influential works - the ‘Kreutzer’ Sonata of 1804, a favourite piece of music for Albert Einstein and the inspiration for both a short story by Tolstoy and composer Leoš Janácek's own String Quartet No 1.
“It’s one of Beethoven’s most popular pieces,” declares Finghin. “It’s so dramatic, it’s in A minor. It starts quiet, but then it just erupts! It’s very difficult, very dramatic, very virtuosic, it’s Beethoven when he was really at the height of his powers, there is energy and melody and vibrancy all coming together.”
The festival will also hear two talks by Richard Wigmore - ‘Wooing The Elite: Beethoven’s Conquest Of Vienna’ on Friday 17 at 4pm, and ‘I Will Strike Out On A New Path: Entering Beethoven’s Heroic Decade’, on Saturday 18 at 7pm, which are certain to whet the appetite of concert goers with “inside stories” of the composer's life.
“Richard has a really wonderful way of conveying to people his wealth of knowledge of music and music history,” says MfG executive director, Anna Lardi Fogarty. “He brings you close to the music that is going to be heard, and keeps it all in a tone that makes it infectious. Audiences will get so much more out of the concerts as they will have heard about the themes, the mood, and what the composer was going through at the time - and Beethoven had such a colourful life.”
The festival is but the first in a series of Beethoven celebrations that will take place throughout the year. Later concerts will feature his works for cello, his final piano sonatas, and there will also be a performance of the mighty Ninth Symphony, featuring up to 200 singers and the RTÉ Concert Orchestra.
The midwinter festival is a ‘Music for Galway and Galway 2020 presents...’ event. For tickets contact the Town Hall Theatre (091 – 569777, www.tht.ie ).