Many Sides to the Galway Cello

Mischa Maisky

Many Sides to the Galway Cello

Music for Galway's inaugural Cellissimo festival, presented in partnership with Galway 2020, took place at the end of March, featuring seven days of cello concerts, workshops, talks, a Bill Whelan world premiere, an exhibition, and a new cello made in Galway. Brendan Finan reviews.

When I recently covered Music for Galway’s Goldberg festival, I wrote about the narrow focus the organisers chose; to focus the whole festival on a single work. Their next festival, much broader in scale, had a focus in some ways narrower. Cellissimo, the first instalment of a triennial event, took place from 25 to 31 March, funded by Galway 2020: European Capital of Culture. It was dedicated almost entirely to what the renowned cellist Gregor Piatigorsky called the ‘wooden box with four strings.’ 

The festival opened, fittingly, with a newly commissioned work on a newly constructed cello. The instrument, now christened the Galway Cello, is to be the prize in a new cello competition, and was designed by the luthier Kuros Torkzadeh from a concept by Philip Fogarty. It features a scroll sculpted into the shape of a Claddagh ring, and is constructed from various Galway timbers. Bill Whelan used the fragments of timber as the inspiration for Fragments, which sets poetry by W.B. Yeats, Moya Cannon, Seamus Heaney, and others, and was performed on 25 March by Naomi Berrill. The work shows Whelan’s skill as a collaborator, fitting very comfortably with Berrill’s style, and his skill as a melodysmith.

It’s to the credit of Music for Galway, and to Artistic Director Finghin Collins and Festival Director Anna Lardi, that the festival explored genres outside classical, with Berrill taking a whole concert, performing her own songs from the Mick Lally Theatre on Friday 26 March. Berrill’s sound is delicate and introverted, drawing on a wide variety of dance styles, from the traditions of Ireland, Japan, India, baroque Classical, and others, and often combining them in innovative ways. Her voice sings high and clear over an often busier cello part, and she seems determined to find new timbres for the cello; it rarely sounds like a classical instrument.

Neither does it in the context of traditional music – a context in which I had never heard it before. The cello is quite new to trad, and still early enough in its development as a traditional instrument that many of the most significant advocates can come together in one room – or, as occurred on 30 March, one Zoom call. An hour for a twelve-person roundtable discussion is very little time, though the host, Natalie Haas, kept the discussion active, relevant and involved. Her performance, a cross-Atlantic concert with Haas in California on cello and Caitlín Nic Gabhann (concertina) and Ciarán Ó Maonaigh (fiddle) playing in Donegal, allowed the traditional cello to speak for itself. In Haas’ hands, the instrument carves out a firm place for itself within the music, at times acting as a low melodic instrument, and at others as a bass, but feeling equally at home in both roles, and never like a compromise.

The heartbreaking and the ghostly
The six lunchtime concerts of the festival, built around Bach’s cello suites, had the most varied (and interesting) programmes – and also the only classical programmes in the festival with works by female composers. Every day, one cellist performed one of the suites, along with a programme of solo cello works, incorporating several from the 20th and 21st centuries. Together, they showcased the breadth of styles of cello playing; Jakob Koranyi making the first suite feel almost improvisatory, while Adrian Brendel took the third in an almost matter-of-fact, completely unshowy way. Tatjana Vassiljeva’s second was warm and lush, almost Romantic, and Christopher Ellis’ sixth quiet and introverted, highly attentive to the richly resonant St Nicholas’ Collegiate Church, Galway.

The other works in the programmes let the performers explore the wider repertoire. Kaija Saariaho was the only composer to appear twice, her delicate timbral works Sept Papillons and Spins and Spells performed by Koryani and Vassiljeva. Other works incorporated the heartbreaking (Sally Beamish’s Gala Water, performed by Hannah Roberts), the ghostly and unsettling (Enno Poppe’s Zwölf, played by Marc Coppey), demanding technical studies (Jonathan Harvey’s Curve With Plateaux, which Brendel played, and Jean-Louis Duport’s eighth etude, by Coppey), and traditional melodies, which acted as a sort of end-of-concert meditation in Koryani and Roberts’ performances (the Swedish Värmlandsvisan, arranged by the performer, and the English Blow the Wind Southerly, arranged by Sheku Kanneh-Mason).

Bach’s suites weren’t the only complete cycle at the festival; on Saturday night, Finghin Collins was joined by five cellists for the five Beethoven cello sonatas. Of these, the last, performed by Adrian Mantu of ConTempo, was most captivating, with some extraordinary lyricism and warm tone. Marc Coppey, who performed the second, also provided rich sound even in busier passages and some lovely moments of dialogue with the piano, and Christopher Marwood’s big sound provided a firm foundation in the third. Throughout the five works, Collins was a chameleon, always the exact type of accompanist the performer needed.

Coppey and Ellis also featured in the opening concert, which took place in Kylemore Abbey, after Berrill’s performance of Fragments, on stage together with the conductorless Irish Chamber Orchestra, led by Katherine Hunka, for Vivaldi’s G minor concerto for two cellos. As a teacher–student pair, Coppey and Ellis complemented each other’s sound, Coppey’s fuller and more soloistic; Ellis’ more subdued, with the canons of the work balanced well between the pair. Coppey took the soloist’s chair alone for Haydn’s first cello concerto, his playing expressive against the dark sound of the orchestra; then in the second half of the concert, he took the conductor’s podium, leading the orchestra in the only works of the festival not to feature a solo cello – Barber’s Adagio and Bartók’s Divertimento, both for string orchestra –and a nocturne by Tchaikovsky.

The Sunday night concert, which bore the somewhat corny title ‘From Prussia with Love’, was the first time I have seen musicians from the ConTempo and Vanbrugh quartets together, with the former performing Mozart’s first Prussian quartet before being joined by Marwood for Schubert’s towering cello quintet. The latter was the more memorable work, with ConTempo sounding delighted to be playing together again. Beneath them, Marwood’s cello sometimes sang with the quartet, other times growled and thundered against them. The final chord of the quintet, just after things seem to reach an accord, is as good a destabilising moment as anything Schubert ever wrote.

Take-no-prisoners forcefulness
The closing concert brought the cello superstar Mischa Maisky, performing with his daughter Lily on piano in the Jardin Musical in Brussels. Maisky, the only cellist to count both Mstislav Rostropovich and Gregor Piatigorsky among his teachers, performed a selection of works from Beethoven, Britten, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, and Piazzolla, along with an encore, Prayer from Ernest Bloch’s From Jewish Life. Maisky’s take-no-prisoners forcefulness was a good match for the programme, especially in the steelier moments of Britten’s Sonata in C, at one point strumming open strings with both hands, and at another sawing harmonics over brittle piano chords. But there were tender moments too, especially in the Russian composers’ works, like the ambiguous ending of Tchaikovsky’s Autumn Song landing, in a moment of beautiful programming, into the same composer’s Valse Sentimentale. 

Nor even was that everything. The festival also featured an informative talk by Ludmila Snigireva, a board member of Music for Galway, on Rostropovich, and her interview with Maisky, touching on his development as a cellist, on his childhood, and on Covid. He stated his ambition: ‘to live long and die young.’ There was a broadcast of the Scottish documentary maker Murray Grigor’s 2018 film, The Cellist: The Legacy of Gregor Piatigorsky, with reconstructions of moments in his life, archival footage, and interviews with musicians he worked with or trained, and with others who knew him. There was a performance by Lucy Railton, which I unfortunately had to miss for scheduling reasons, and lectures by Richard Wigmore. Several performers gave masterclasses, now available on YouTube along with a student concert and a documentary on the Galway Cello. It was a busy week.

Cellissimo brought back for the first time in a long time the paradoxical power of a music festival to be simultaneously exhausting and rejuvenating. At the beginning of her concert, Naomi Berrill spoke of the healing power of music, and there is certainly something to the connection between artist and audience that feels like balm.

Perhaps for logistical reasons, many of the concerts were pre-recorded, and this removed some of the immediacy of hearing the works in the moment they’re made. It’s odd that it makes a difference, but it does. Something about knowing – or at least believing – that the music is made while you’re hearing it emphasises that connection.

But this was nonetheless an event, years in the making and tight in execution. At the beginning of The Cellist, Piatigorsky was heard to say, ‘The cello is the richest instrument of all string instruments, with more possibilities.’ In exploring the instrument and its performers, in different genres and characters, Cellissimo might as well have made that its mission statement. Certainly it made a strong case.



Published on 7 April 2021

Brendan Finan is a teacher and writer. Visit

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