Encounters in Tuscany

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Chamber music in rural Italy

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Sometimes the best concert venues are those that take you by surprise. Last weekend I was in Tuscany for the 24th Incontri in Terra di Siena music festival – a week-long programme of concerts, talks and exhibitions whose title literally means ‘encounters’ or ‘meetings in the region of Siena’

The festival was set up by cellist Antonio Lysy, whose family have owned an estate – La Foce – in the valley since 1924. His grandmother was the writer Iris Origo who documented her life in rural Italy during the Second World War in her book War in Val D’Orcia.

On Monday we set off for a concert in the town of Pienza, about 50km east of Siena. The venue was a little outside town, so having parked the car we joined the rest of the audience for an evening stroll, with a warm orange sunset arriving right on cue.

Italian churches are as a rule more flamboyant, more sensual and more colourful than British ones – but the Pieve di Corsignano, where tonight’s concert bucked this trend. A church on the site is recorded as early as the eleventh century and the building’s squat, cylindrical tower is more like the Norman castles of Wales than the ornate and elegant churches of Italy. The doorway is decorated with ancient fertility symbols and mythical sea creatures, including a mermaid with two tails and some enormous fish.

Joining the lethargic crowd trickling inside, I found the church was bare – imposing sandstone pillars lined the nave but the building was otherwise empty. Or rather, it would have been on any other night: tonight it was filled with people.

The Borromeo Quartet, resident at the New England Conservatory of Music, were the evening’s performers and began with Bach’s St Anne Fugue, arranged for string quartet before playing Debussy’s String Quartet No. 1. Both performances were hugely enjoyable – but the evening’s highpoint was Schubert’s Death and the Maiden String Quartet. The Borromeos gave a performance of enormous intensity, clarity and eloquence. This was a group who seemed to know each other’s playing as intimately as their own. Schubert’s work – inspired by a mythical meeting – was a suitably dramatic piece to be performed in a church of such imposing simplicity.

The rapturous applause that followed was surely not only for the brilliant performance but also for the bewitching venue, looking ever more splendid as the Tuscan sun disappeared behind the honeyed hills.