Festival of Czech Chamber Music at the RNCM

Each January at the Royal Northern College of Manchester there is a chamber music festival, focusing on a particular theme and presenting some prominent musicians alongside the talent of the College’s own students. This year it was Czech music, or Má Vlast as it was entitled. Understandably at the heart of the enterprise were the marvellous chamber pieces of Smetana, Dvorak and Janacek. I was fortunate enough to hear piano trios by the two former composers performed by the internationally renowned Guarnieri Trio from Prague . You might have thought that for this group, who have been playing together since 1986, routine would have set in for such familiar works. Not a bit of it: there was a freshness, an energy and a deep emotional commitment to their interpretation.

And the range of the festival , under its director Petr Prause, was broad and imaginative. On Sunday morning with unexpected appropriateness, given recent events in Paris, there was a moving session devoted to works written in the Terezin ghetto before their composers were transported to the death camps. I had already heard Ullmann’s marvellous Third String Quartet – surely it should acquire a place in the mainstream repertory. New to me were a vigorous string trio by Gideon Klein and plaintive songs by Hans Krása and Pavel Haas. Martinů’s jazzy and witty surrealist  Revue de Cuisine may be a little too long for its content, but is certainly enjoyable.

Post Second World War pieces made less of an impression. Petr Eben’s The Labyrinth of the World and Paradise of the Heart for string quartet was as pretentious as its title suggests, while the piano trio by Luboš Fišer, clearly a work intended to reflect the post-1968 political circumstances in Czechoslovakia, was musically simplistic and vacuous. On the other hand Eight Inventions, by Miloslav Kabeláč, a commission from Les Percussions de Strasbourg, was inventive and compelling.

My visit to the Festival ended suitably with a piano transcription of two movements from Smetana’s Má Vlast. Throughout, the performing standards of the students were very high, a testimony to the quality of RNCM training and preparation.