A muse of fire descended on the top floor of a former warehouse in the East End, unextinguished by the rain which fell almost continuously outside during the four stupendous concerts – three advertised, one a generous bonus – of the Ragged Music Festival. Once turned into an educational refuge for the East End poor by the heroic Dr Barnardo, surviving the Blitz unlike just about every other building in the vicinity, this unlikely and allegedly haunted venue – the Paranormal Society is due to have a sleepover here soon – the Ragged School Museum has been commandeered by pianists and partners, in life as well as music, Pavel Kolesnikov and Samson Tsoy. They couldn’t have done it without the generous help and friendship of the director, Erica Davies, and, among sterling sponsors, Yamaha’s unstinting support in supplying a piano, winched up to the attic room, painstakingly tuned and maintained over three unforgettable days.
Even Kolesnikov and Tsoy, I suspect, must have been amazed not only that the festival happened at all in its second year – 65 rather than last year’s 130 audience members admitted to the schoolroom – but also that they got the guests they did: friend and mentor Elisabeth Leonskaja, top violinist Alina Ibragimova and two other musical friends, clarinettist Nicolas Baldeyrou (pictured below in rehearsal with Tsoy by Eva Vermandel) and cellist Andrei Ioniță. Six great musicians, a dozen masterpieces, some not without their moments of wit and charm but all touching a depth that, given those performances, has left this listener exhausted two days on. The idea was to link the building’s 20th century history to two works of wartime genius, Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, composed in a prisoner of war camp, and Shostakovich’s Second Piano Trio with its response to news of the Holocaust reaching Russia in 1944. Their companion pieces needed to be carefully chosen, and they were, with plenty of light and shade but no lower level of genius and intensity. Introducing the Saturday night programme, which culminated in Leonskaja’s magisterial interpretation of Schubert’s last, D960, sonata, Kolesnikov referred to an Akhmatova poem in which she awaits the arrival of the muse, asking her on arrival, “are you the one who dictated the pages of Inferno to Dante?”. “Yes,” is the response. Kolesnikov adds: “at the risk of sounding vague and transcendental I will say that it might be that it has been the same muse that led Beethoven, Stravinsky and Schubert to create these works.” It was striking because the previous evening, as Ibragimova launched after a long, preparatory pause, into the final, massive Chaconne of Bach’s D minor Partita, the image came immediately to mind of Dante and Virgil standing at the gates of hell; what followed seemed like Virgil’s consoling guidance through the various horrors, and occasional lightenings, as they descend ever downwards in the narrowing funnel. The impression struck again like a thunderbolt as Leonskaja played the opening chords of the shatteringly moving Passacaglia of the Shostakovich trio (Ibragimova, Leonskaja and Ioniță pictured below in rehearsal by Vermandel).
Throughout so many of the performances, extreme tension was relieved by those starbursts when the schoolroom roof seemed to take off. It happened in the visionary movements of the Messiaen, Ioniță and finally Ibragimova accompanied meditatively but with inner power by Tsoy. When I first heard the violinist and pianist play the concluding “Louange à l’Immortalité de Jésus” in the Fidelio Orchestra Café, it was their debut joint recital; without that meeting, the miraculous continuity in times which have been more about separation than coming together would never have happened. Then, Ibragimova had spontaneously played late-night sonatas with Tsoy and Kolesnikov, which is how we came to the sublime Brahms First Sonata on Sunday evening, one of five amazing gifts in what had been advertised as a spontaneous party thanksgiving free to all those who’d bought tickets. The radiant light also burst, for me quite unexpectedly on the strength of hearing only a few recordings, in the concluding “Dithyrambe” of Stravinsky’s Duo Concertant. The Gigue which preceded it was all virtuosic fun and games in the spirit of sheer delight, but then comes the seriousness and what starts as a homage to Bach reaches climactically for the stars as surely, in the hands of Ibragimova and Kolesnikov, as Messiaen does.
Interesting to reflect that the Bach, Messiaen and Stravinsky works all go deepest at the end, while Beethoven’s D major Cello Sonata, Op. 102 No. 2, dissolves all sense of time at the end of its slow movement – you could have heard a pin, or rather a pencil, drop in the schoolroom at that point in the transcendent partnership of Ioniță and Tsoy – only to crown the achievement with a crazy fugal finale. By contrast, it always strikes me that Schubert says everything with profundity and even terror in the first two movements of his last sonata; the Scherzo and the Finale, even though it features a violent contrast to the dancing quirkiness, could belong to a different work. Even so, Leonskaja brought her crystalline firmness and spaciousness to the inspirations here. But it was the awfully big adventure of the opening movement, with the link to the absolutely necessary exposition repeat bringing us the most apocalyptic statement of the lower-register rumble which threatens to open chasms beneath the serenity, and the sadness eventually transcended of the great Andante sostenuto which resonated as the rain slanted down beyond Leonskaja’s profile at the piano (Leonskaja pictured below by Vermandel in rehearsal; the Schubert was from memory)..That was a given; with the two musicians I hadn’t heard before, it was fascinating to see the personalities respond to different demands. Baldeyrou’s infinite softness as Messiaen prepares to launch birdsong out of the abyss in the clarinet solo of the Quartet was eerily complimented by the plashing of water somewhere in or outside the building during Friday night’s downpour. On Sunday afternoon, he mastered the volume necessary to match Tsoy’s modernistic emphasis in the stormier parts of Brahms’s F minor Clarinet Sonata, Op. 120 No. 1; but they both melted us in the infinite simplicity of the slow movement and the lilting of the Allegretto grazioso, beautifully echoed in the opening of the violin sonata played a couple of hours later. Ioniță let rip with searing tone most impressively of all in the Shostakovich and a second Beethoven Cello Sonata, Op. 69, in perfect partnership with Leonskaja at the party: another spirit-lifter.
While the Brahms Op, 39 waltzes for four hands at one piano are not without their darker, more melancholy sequences, there was sheer delight here in the interchanges of Kolesnikov, Tsoy and Leonskaja, ending audaciously with the last two waltzes taken by all three at the keyboard (presumably a hand each below Tsoy’s upper lines from the other two). That was the radiant calm before the storm of the Shostakovich Piano Trio. It is hard to write rationally of a performance which virtually tore the place to shreds, but ever so precisely, inducing serious arrhythmia in what I think it’s not hyperbolic to call the holocaust of the finale, taking its Jewish melodies into the abyss and laying them finally to rest. There can be no attending another live performance of the work for some time to come.One actually wondered if Ibragimova’s intensity could hold to the end. It did, and after a break for tea she was calm and poised for the party sonata; Leonskaja went on after that epic not only to partner both violinist in the Brahms and cellist in the Beethoven, but to exercise a perfect delight in the finale of Mozart’s D major Sonata K576, seemingly spontaneous while preparations were underway for the next sonata, The unofficial part of the proceedings ended with Tsoy and Kolesnikov (pictured above by Vermandel) in their deepest performance yet of the Schubert Fantaisie, which I’ve also been lucky to hear them play in recent months at the Fidelio Orchestra Café and the Peckham Multi-Storey Car Park. But these three days have capped everything in this extraordinary year: unrepeatable, unforgettable. So much more was possible thanks to generous sponsorship, not least in the matter of subsidised tickets for under-30s, which helped to make the audience so much a diverse part of the proceedings. And to think that BBC Radio 3 didn’t take up the opportunity to broadcast from the Ragged School Museum. Well, some things are best left as a treasure for the memory.