The Great Tradition
A Cornish music seminar is a fitting monument to an irascible but inspirational violinist
In a quiet Cornish enclave not far from Penzance, there lies a haven that has become a veritable rite of passage for the world’s finest young musicians. Hidden away among the cliffs and gorse bushes, overlooking silver beaches and barnacle-encrusted rocks, stands the Arts and Crafts house that is home to the International Musicians’ Seminar, Prussia Cove. Twice a year the house — the family home of Hilary Tunstall-Behrens — opens its doors to students and young professionals who flock there to study with the crème-de-la-crème of internationally respected figures such as the pianist András Schiff, the violinist and conductor Gábor Takács-Nagy and the cellist Steven Isserlis, who is now the IMS’s artistic director.
The IMS is widely regarded as the best short course of its type in Britain. Money is short — it receives no state funding — and replenishing it a constant struggle, according to Behrens and Isserlis. Still, it has no boxes to tick but its own: high standards, purity of approach and the ability to foster these in an extraordinarily beautiful setting with few distractions from the outside world. Alumni include the Belcea Quartet, violinists Alina Ibragimova and Isabelle Faust, and pianist Dénes Várjon; but in fact there are few rising stars with the same seriousness of approach who have not been through its portals.
The brainchild of the Hungarian violinist and conductor Sándor Végh, the IMS has run since 1972. Its raison d’être, Isserlis tells me — when I ask how it has changed since Végh’s day — is, in part, not to change. Végh brought with him Central European ideals of music teaching and study that can be traced back as far as Brahms’s era and beyond; Isserlis seeks to carry this on. In the coastal country atmosphere — the sea sparkling beyond the windows of the Long Room where the masterclasses take place, accommodation in the cottages that pepper the estate, and a cavernous refectory where everyone takes their meals together — there is room for it to flourish, free from the urban pressures of most musicians’ stressful existences. As Steven Isserlis quips, “It wouldn’t be the same in Milton Keynes.”
This is a special season for the IMS as the centenary of Végh’s birth falls next year. The violinist, who died in 1997, enjoyed a lengthy career that began in Budapest, where he was a student of Jenö Hubay and Zoltán Kodály. Later he played under the baton of Richard Strauss, as well as giving the world premiere of Bartok’s String Quartet No.5 as a member of the Hungarian String Quartet. The ensemble left Hungary in 1946 and Végh subsequently took French citizenship.
He was, by all accounts, no easy personality. “He was not a personal friend of mine,” Isserlis remarks, looking back to his own early visits to the IMS (he has been going there since 1975). “I played with him a lot. He shouted at me a lot. He poured a glass of beer over my head once. Another time, he threw me out of a room for bringing in a cup of tea during a rehearsal. But I did also learn a lot from him.
“He brought music to life in the most wonderful way. He looked inside the music. He really brought out the inner shape of the music — that was his great talent. Every note was alive and had its place, without foisting anything on it. He was not the easiest or kindest of men, but he was a great musician and you can hear it, especially in recordings of his conducting in the last years of his life.”
Today no professor would dream of throwing a glass of beer over a student’s head (at least, I hope they wouldn’t). But otherwise, Isserlis feels, the IMS’s special quality is that it preserves the essence of a golden age of musicianship. “It’s more a matter of ideals than a specific tradition,” he adds. “We can go there and look deeply into the music, and not worry about career or projection, these horrible words which I hate. Of course, people come down there who are ambitious and do worry about those things. But they’re usually the ones who don’t like it and go away again.”
András Schiff visited the IMS for the first time when he was invited by Végh himself (under whose baton he later recorded a series of CDs of the Mozart piano concertos). “Végh was a very great artist, a great musician, an enormous influence,” he says. “He’s no longer there, but his spirit is. The attitude is the same.”
The sterling quality of the IMS remains inextricably interwoven with its home base. Végh first saw the place when Behrens, who was studying the violin with him at the time, invited him to Cornwall to perform the Beethoven Violin Concerto in a local music festival with which he was involved. “He was thrilled with the county,” says Behrens. “He had a little time to go to Tintagel and look around. Afterwards, he turned round and said, ‘Look, I’ll set up a masterclass course here if you’ll organise it’.” Behrens has done so ever since.
At Easter, young musicians arrive to take part in several weeks of masterclasses with Isserlis and his colleagues. In September, the IMS’s second annual event is the “Open Chamber Music” in which a handpicked collection of young professionals assembles to work intensively together. The majority of associated performances are largely local: the Maestri Concert has become a popular fixture in the spring session, and concerts take place in the area surrounding Prussia Cove during the Open Chamber Music weeks. Fundraising events are organised at various points during the year; and in January 2012 there is to be a special centenary concert in memory of Végh.
Every autumn, though, the IMS holds a tour in which its musicians can display the fruits of their intensive labours. This year the tour runs from October 2-6 and takes in Truro, Bristol, Cambridge, Coldwaltham and finally London’s Wigmore Hall. Catch them if you can: it’s a chance to appreciate what can be achieved when all considerations other than the music itself are jettisoned. Meanwhile, the house in Cornwall battens down the hatches to weather the winter months, ready to start all over again in spring.