Very cello, very mellow

Kronberg was once the playground of Frankfurt's rich - that was before the cellists took over. By Annette Morreau
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The Independent Culture
Not since Pogorelich attempted to pulverise the South Bank Steinway have I seen another artist bear down on their instrument with such ferocity. Mischa Maisky, in a riveting performance of Shostakovich's First Cello Concerto seemed to beat his montagnan cello to within a hair's breadth of matchwood. "Oh, I break strings all the time," he said nonchalantly.

Maisky's extraordinary performance marked the official ending of the Second Cello Festival in Kronberg, Germany, where over four days last month some of the world's most distinguished cellists were gathered. Cello festivals are particularly pleasant affairs. For some unexplained reason, cellists appear to like each other, whereas it seems generally acknowledged (perhaps only by cellists) that violinists all hate one another.

Ralph Kirshbaum's remarkable biennial cello festival in Manchester certainly proves the point, for this is an event where the world's top cellists donate their entire fees for the good of a couple of cello-related charities and the opportunity to have fun with their colleagues.

Kronberg, under the patronage of Marta Casals-Istomin (who was present) and Mstislav Rostropovich (who was not), apes Manchester - although not entirely in the fee department - but offers very different surroundings. In Manchester, activities are entirely centred on the clinical setting of the Royal Northern College of Music, with accommodation provided in the modest Business School.

Kronberg, by contrast, is a tiny town perched high above Frankfurt in the Taunus mountains with a castle, cobbled streets, medieval half timbered and shuttered houses, and a vast "Relais and Chateau" hotel in the former home of Queen Victoria's daughter, Frederika.

With a population of 18,000, Kronberg is also well known for housing Frankfurt's financial community and the Schlosshotel provides perfect conditions (magnificent banqueting facilities and golf course) for discreet meetings of international bankers, even if its rates, generously sponsored for the festival, had guests gasping as their modest fees evaporated on Perrier rather than champagne.

Orchestral concerts took place in the Stadthalle, recently handsomely renovated from its former existence as a sports hall into a 500-seat auditorium. Recitals were housed in picturesque churches offering acoustics as reverberant as the Stadthalle's was dry. Without exception, all the concerts were packed, as were the general rehearsals open to the public.

Chattering in a sacristy, apparently prompted by the collapse of a passer- by, seriously aggravated Natalia Gutman's intense performance of Hindemith's Solo Sonata Op 25 No 3. But no sooner had the cause been explained than Gutman herself pulled out of the recital owing to a finger injury, whereupon a bemused, T-shirted Mischa Maisky was drafted in.

In place of Bach's Sixth Suite, he gallantly summoned up the Third, after which he cantered round various Preludes and Sarabandes, becoming ever more abandoned. The public revelled in it. The contrast with Frans Helmerson's aristocratic performance of Bach's C minor Suite was illuminating - alas, show business wins every time.

Patrick and Thomas Demenga, in their two-cello performances of Vivaldi, Barriere and Paganini, are fast becoming the "Labeque brothers". Their "anything you can do, I can do better" style brought the house down. Tsuyoshi Tsutsumi gave the most satisfying recital: his joyous and expansive performance of Poulenc's 1948 Sonata, seeking out its varied but elusive character, was a high point and his teaching of 13- year-old Gigi, a Chinese-American student, an object lesson in care and attention.

Amid the concerts and masterclasses, there were three focal points: Hindemith, Du Pre and Feuermann. The Hindemith anniversary was marked by various performances of his work, even if life was only occasionally breathed into them (through no one's fault but the composer's). Jacqueline du Pre would have been 50 this year and in the absence of any British cellists, let alone those particularly associated with her, Christopher Nupen's recent film Remembering Jacqueline du Pre was given an airing.

Emanuel Feuermann, arguably the greatest virtuoso cellist of this century, was forced to leave his position at the Berlin Hochschule in 1933 - making the 50th anniversary of the end of the war an appropriate time to celebrate his life and to atone for past actions.

It was touching to see both his sister Sophie, a favourite accompanist who escaped in 1938 vowing never to return to Germany, and his widow, both of them in their 80s, enjoying the Kronberg Festival, even if their contributions must have seemed frustratingly anecdotal to cellists keen to understand more about Feuermann himself.

An exhibition about Feuermann, the first of its kind, saw many cellists glued to the catalogue, headphones clamped on, listening to documentary radio programmes made recently for the BBC. (Naturally, I plead interest: I provided the exhibition, wrote the catalogue and produced the BBC programmes.)

The weak point? An orchestra - the Bavarian Chamber Philharmonic - barely above student proficiency. No wonder Maisky let rip. Someone had to.