When Steven Isserlis first met Sándor Végh, the late Hungarian violinist and conductor, Végh was in pyjamas. “Met” isn’t quite the right word, for Végh did not spot the nervous 16-year-old cellist that morning as he made his way to the bathroom in the Cornish cottage they were to share for the week. It was an unpromising start to a relationship that was as fruitful as it was turbulent: Isserlis – now, of course, a highly respected performer and artistic director of the International Musicians Seminar that Végh established in Cornwall – recalls one exchange “when Végh poured a glass of beer over my head”.
Known for his towering musicianship and unpredictable temper, Végh visited Cornwall in southwest England in 1971 to play the Beethoven Violin Concerto in Truro Cathedral. During his visit Hilary Tunstall-Behrens, his former pupil, invited Végh to a small music festival held at his family home on the Atlantic coast. Végh fell in love with the place immediately. He saw in the landscape – in its undulating forms, secluded granite coves and churning sea – a place where musicians might find both inspiration and peace. He decided then to establish a music course there.
The International Musicians Seminar (or IMS Prussia Cove, as it is known) this year celebrates its 40th anniversary. Maestri past and present include not only Végh and now Isserlis, but György Kurtág and Ralph Kirshbaum – and alumni Nicola Benedetti, Mark Padmore and Natalie Clein, as well as members of the Amadeus, Chilingirian and Dante Quartets. As pianist András Schiff, who teaches at IMS Prussia Cove most years, puts it: “I cannot see many names who have not been to IMS – if they are any good.”
Cornwall has long had artistic hotspots, from Stanhope Forbes and the Newlyn School of the 1880s, painting en plein air, to the abstract art of Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth and their contemporaries. There is still a community of artists in the area and, since 1993, Tate St Ives.
Music – the most abstract of the arts – is not usually considered rooted in landscape. But what Nicholson found in Cornwall, Végh felt too. “The nature is so beautiful here, it’s unspoilt nature,” he said. “A wonderful influence for these young people, seeing the waves that correspond to our waves in the music. Every ripple from Beethoven to Bartók has a communication with nature.”
Végh grew up in the Hungarian-speaking part of Transylvania, in present-day Romania, where folk culture was strong. He felt that that musical tradition was closer to the “rhythms of nature” than the “intellectual” western European one – though he was, of course, indebted to both. “He had a very good balance between intellect and instinct,” Schiff tells me. “He was not an intellectual, but very intelligent. Instinct dominated his approach: it was very strong and always right. In some musicians, the intellect dominates too much.
At the Liszt Academy in Budapest, Végh studied with Jeno Hubay, who had played with Brahms – and he saw himself as inheritor of a tradition that was under threat. “Today technique is separated from music,” he complained. “You push the button and people play very quickly, faultlessly, but they are afraid to express emotion.” The Cornish estate owners’ conservation-mindedness struck a chord with Végh, who had a similar respect for the past.
Yet he was not backward-looking. As a student, he was excited by what Hubay called “modern rubbish” – especially that of Béla Bartók. Later, Végh’s quartet, coached by Bartók, gave the first performance of Bartók’s Fifth Quartet in Barcelona. “His values could be applied to contemporary music,” Isserlis insists when I ask him about Végh’s concern with the past. “It was an approach to music, a very natural approach. He felt that a lot of the teaching going on at that time – and of course it’s still true – was very much geared towards making a successful career. It was about making an impression, about the player not the music. That was anathema to Végh: he wanted people to play naturally.”
Those were the values on which IMS was founded in 1972. The Arts and Crafts-style house, built into the rocks overlooking the sea, became the focal point: classes and communal meals happened there, with musicians sleeping in cottages dotted over the hill above. The food was cooked by volunteers – many of whom were amateur musicians or music students, and joined the impromptu chamber groups that played late into the night.
Forty years on, none of this has changed – or so it seems from my perspective as a sometime volunteer. Above all, Végh’s conviction that music-making should be as natural as speech has remained a guiding principle. I recall a class given by the composer Thomas Adès for which a young quartet had prepared the fourth movement from Beethoven’s String Quartet No 14. “You should be saying the same thing, continuous and snaking, not having a conversation,” he told them. “We’re saying a big long paragraph about something we don’t want to stop talking about.”
Continuity is key to an organisation such as IMS, too. Végh, who died in 1997, came to Cornwall twice a year for more than two decades and many of the current teachers, including Isserlis and Schiff, played with him.
What has come to distinguish IMS is not only the excellence of its musicians but also their commitment. Its calendar comprises two three-week seminars in Cornwall: the Master Classes at Easter, and Open Chamber Music in September, during which mixed ensembles of young and experienced musicians play together. Many return year after year – for music rather than remuneration.
Those who support IMS have shown a similar loyalty, packing out the concerts in Cornwall’s medieval churches, and venues throughout southern England for IMS’s annual autumn tour, which ends at London’s Wigmore Hall. Cornwall’s artists have been particular supporters, and never more so than now: 20 of them – including Ken Howard, Rose Hilton and Judy Buxton – have donated paintings to be auctioned at a fundraising event at Christie’s in London this week, attesting perhaps to the affinities between the art forms.
Végh’s project has reverberated further than he might have predicted. But then he did say that “energy invested in music is never lost”.
Paintings on view at Christie’s South Kensington, December 8-12. Silent auction, supper and performance by the Dante Quartet, December 12. Tickets at www.i-m-s.org.uk