THE FEBRUARY FESTIVAL in The Hague

Opening Concert 

at the Nieuwe Kerk in Den Haag on 14th February.

Churches provide wonderful venues for classical music. The acoustics are usually excellent and the atmosphere and patina laden surroundings provide a very sympathetic setting. The only problem can be sitting for a couple of hours on hard wooden pews. The magnificent Nieuwe Kerk in the centre of The Hague is now a permanent concert venue and most of the seating, you will be glad to hear, is on comfortable chairs. The church is the main venue for the inaugural, and hopefully annual, Februari Festival which opened last night.

Chamber music seems very popular at the moment with several important international festivals taking place in Holland. While the recent Amsterdam one concentrates on string quartets, other events explore the wider spectrum of chamber music, like the well-established one in Delft.

The Februari Festival has already created an identity for itself in as much as it is themed with the first festival concentrating on the work of Felix Mendelssohn and Robert Schumann. Last night’s concert was a real family affair, with not only pieces by the two men but by Mendelssohn’s sister Fanny and Schumann’s wife Clara as well. In general, it is the organiser’s intent not only to move the spotlight onto female composer from the mid-nineteenth century to the present but also to reveal the more human aspects of composers’ lives. With no intention to knocking them of their illustrious pedestals, the Festival hopes to show these men, and women, were flesh and blood and fallible, just like the rest of us.

Last night got off to a cracking start with the renowned Quartetto de Venezia, who are the designated artists in residence for the Festival, playing Schumann’s String Quartet No.1 Op. 41 No.1.  Performing on the small stage under the church pulpit’s huge oak canopy you could really hear the quality of this Italian ensemble.

The quartet was followed by pianist Sofya Gulyak playing Fanny Mendelssohn’s Easter Sonata in A. This spirited piece was lost for 150 years and when found, the Mendelssohn signed manuscript was, predictably, attributed to Felix. It was not correctly attributed and performed in Fanny’s name until 2012. Although Ms Gulyak’s playing was faultless and the piece superb, I have a little niggle. Page turners are always a distraction but this pianist was using an iPad which not only glowed rather conspicuously but needed its small screen flipping about three times more frequently than a conventional paper score so the page turner was popping up and down every thirty seconds. I saw a concert recently where the electronic pages were turned with a foot switch, much better.

After the interval we were treated to a selection of lieder by Clara Schumann, followed by two more by Felix Mendelssohn, beautifully sung by young Dutch mezzo-soprano Maria Fiselier, accompanied by Peter Nilsson on piano. This young singer had a pleasing personality matched by an expressive voice. I enjoyed her set.

The evening was rounded off with Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio No. 2 in C, opus 66. Ishay Shaer on piano provided a solid foundation while sparks often flew between Simone Lamsma on violin and Quirine Viersen on cello. The excitement of their spirited playing was matched by delicate subtlety when required.

So, a really excellent start to the new Februari Festival and I am looking forward to seeing a couple more concerts before the end of the week.     Michael Hasted   15th February 2018

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Romantic High-points

at the Nieuwe Kerk in Den Haag on 15th February.

From the brochure it was hard to choose what to see as every evening offered a new treat. The organisers have attracted top talent from all corners of Europe, including from Russia and young talent from Israel. The festival also included Clara Schumann’s work and more fascinatingly, Fanny, sister of Felix Mendelsohn. Fanny, though older and more promising than her brother when young – it was said that at the age of fourteen she could teach Bach a thing or two – was very much pushed into the background. Her father deemed it unseemly for a woman to perform – she should concentrate on being a Hausfrau and let her brother shine. All of her 460 compositions, bar one, were performed, until relatively recently, under the name of her illustrious brother.

Tonight we were treated to the romantic high-points, mainly in the form of Lieder. During the 18th century, the Romantics turned their back on the ‘Age of Enlightenment’ and devoted themselves to music expressing high emotion. Clara Schuhmann’s Romances for violin and piano op. 22 were beautifully played by outstanding Dutch violinist Simone Lamsma and the young Israeli Ishay Shaer.

There followed a long section of Lieder, sung by baritone Henk Neven. I must admit that until now I was not over-fond of Lieder (we disrespectfully called them my mother’s tralala songs) but tonight I was blown away by Henk Neven’s wonderful rendition of Schumann’s Dichterliebe with words by Heinrich Heine. Neven’s powerful voice effortlessly filled the vast hall and Hans Eijsackers, on piano, provided a landscape of rich sounds to frame Neven’s performance.

The young duo of Lestari Scholtes & Gwylim Janssens gave us an exuberant Lieder Ohne Worte by Felix Mendelsohn. The concert closed with Schumann’s Pianoquintet op.44 in which brilliant Russian pianist Sofya Gulyak joined the Quartetto di Venezia. The last stole my heart – four seasoned middle-aged musicians, relaxed as though playing in my grandmother’s apartment, played with an energy young musicians at the height of their powers would envy. They extracted such perfect sounds from their instruments that even sitting at some distance away, it made the hairs on my arm stand up, and that takes some doing.

Last but not least a word about the venue: The Nieuwe Kerk in Den Haag, now a permanent concert hall, is a marvel of Dutch architecture. The incredible vaulted ceiling appears to be constructed of an amalgam of huge ribcages. This and a series of complex, mainly transparent baffles created the perfect sound for the audience, no matter where they sat.   Astrid Burchardt    16th February 2018

 

Main picture by Jurriaan Brobbel, smaller one by Eric van Nieuwland

 

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