Playing away

Far from the smoke of the city and the baying of the critics, a quiet corner of Cornwall offers gifted young musicians a chance to polish their craft, relax, even fall in love. Charlotte Higgins joins the party

The farther you travel into Cornwall, the slower the train goes. The view also gets more beautiful. There's the shock of the sea (you're so close against it that sometimes you feel you're being propelled right over the beach). Then you dip between banks splattered with creamy primroses, and emerge to trundle over softly pleated green hills. The whole bucolic caboodle.

It's partly that change of pace, partly the astonishingly beautiful surroundings and partly the distance from London (five whole train hours), that makes the unwieldy-sounding International Musicians Seminar Prussia Cove (IMS) so special.

Each year, during April and September, 60 young string players and pianists gather in Cornwall to attend 10-day courses, with masterclasses headed by an impressive team of musicians. When I visit, Stephen Isserlis, the event's artistic director, is teaching cello, along with David Waterman of the Endellion Quartet.

Then there's the Hungarian pianist Ferenc Rados, Sigmund Nissel, second violinist of the legendary Amadeus Quartet, and Lorand Fenyves, who teaches violin and viola.

All this high-powered musical activity takes place in a rambling, turn-of-the-century medievalist house on a crumpled little cliff over the ocean. The only hint of the urban is the intricate city state, complete with artificial water courses, that is being constructed by a handful of children on the beach below.

'There's something about playing to all this all this expansiveness,' says Cliodhna, a violinist in her final year at the Royal Academy of Music. She waves in the general direction of the ocean. 'It's such expansive music. Playing in the city - which is what we usually do - seems by comparison so enclosed.'

We are sitting at dinner. It's very democratic - everyone's at trestle tables, mucking in, students and maestri alike. There are candles on the tables, and bunches of jonquils and bluebells. William, a Salzburg-based viola player sitting next to me, finds out I am writing about the course. 'I hope you've brought a good dictionary of superlatives,' he offers.

People here are pretty zealous. The atmosphere is intense. This course's intake represents the best young talent from 22 countries from Japan to Denmark, Australia to Russia. Some players are supported by scholarships from charities such as the Jerwood Foundation. Others have managed to scrimp together the £600-odd it costs to come here for the 10 days.

The deal gets them three masterclasses with one of the professors, but that's only part of it. Students are also encouraged to listen in on other classes, and then there's the chamber music after supper, in which the musicians form groups and rehearse, or just sight-read through whatever takes their fancy. These sessions rarely end before the small hours.

'You just couldn't do this in London,' says Isserlis. 'People would have to get away, catch trains home. Here the discussions can continue.' And there's not much else to do, except clamber over the rocks, take walks along the coast path, or challenge someone to a croquet match. There's no telly. People are rather vague as to what day of the week it is.

The house is so far down an unmade road that it would be too much trouble to attempt to venture to a pub. The remote, even sequestered aspect gives the place an atmosphere verging on the cultish, though by no means monastic. There are always lots of love affairs at Prussia Cove, or so I'm told.

IMS was set up in 1972 by the late Hungarian violinist Sandor Vegh and an old student of his, Hilary Behrens, whose brother owns the house. Stephen Isserlis has been coming here for 25 years, since he was 15. 'It's a place to get away and think,' he says. 'There is a whole immersion in the music - it's quite an idealistic thing. We aim to be talking about the music itself, not grooming people for a career. Music is too often taught like a sport, when it should really be taught like a religion.'

There are other acolytes here in Cornwall, too. What makes the whole thing tick over (IMS Prussia Cove is a registered charity) is the handful of volunteers who, in exchange for bed, board and a train fare, do a few hours' work a day - driving the minibus, shopping, helping out in the office, cooking the endless hearty meals.

Some stay for a whole month. Many return time and again (the longest-serving has been coming back for 17 years). There's someone who works in the Theatre Museum in Covent Garden, a tube train driver, a social worker, and oh, look - actor Sam West, displaying hitherto unrecognised talents at running a chamber-music library and trips to the outside world. One outing is to the nearest Laser Quest, though it's hard to imagine this lot tearing themselves away from their Brahms for very long.

When they're not peeling potatoes on the terrace of the daisy-covered lawn, or rocking in hammocks under the back porch, the helpers pop in and out of masterclasses. You can see the appeal.

The house is too small to accommodate paying audiences, so the classes, with half a dozen or so listeners, feel incredibly intimate. Particularly since you are likely to be enveloped in a sun-bleached chintz armchair in one of the house's art-nouveauish living rooms, gazing out at that glorious sea again.

And, to be fair, you'll find it hard to come up with a wiser and more inspirational teacher than, say, Sigmund Nissel. Now in his late seventies (he met Amadeus violist Peter Schidlof while interned on the Isle of Man during the second world war), his pronouncements are based on endless experience and memories.

He explains the Czech nationalism of Dvorak's American Quartet to a young ensemble: 'My grandfather was in a Czech regiment in the Austrian army, and he had to speak German. It was an arrogance. I am no great friend of nationalism, but one can understand it from the Czechs. The Austrians were not not always wise with the minorities in their dominion.'

Or there's the way he regards long-dead composers as old, wayward friends: 'Dvorak was pretty untidy in the way he wrote things down - he was such a full-blooded musician. Not like Beethoven at all.'

And then, as the quartet completes the first movement: 'No beer-garden finish! Make it nobler!' One could, if one really wanted, make a compendium of musico- pedagogical metaphors. Isserlis, on Brahms: 'Hit it! Like tennis!' Ferenc Rados on Prokofiev: 'You are playing like a volcano.'

Or worse: 'You are playing the piano as if you are chewing gum.' (He demonstrates with an exaggerated jaw action: chomp, chomp, chomp.) By the end of my stay I don't want to leave. I want to loll in the hammock, I want to bake chocolate cake, I want to doze in an armchair at midnight to the sound of Brahms sextets. And, as the train pulls farther away from Cornwall, it just gets faster and faster.

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Playing away


Hungary, August 8-15

Benji Lanyado

10, Mar, 2007 @1:36 PM

Playing away

The Italian football season kicks off again tomorrow. Inter fan Mike Kiely is a regular commuter

Mike Kiely

30, Sep, 2000 @4:50 PM

Article image
Playing away

Want to see The Killers on an island in the Danube? Robert Plant in a Serbian fortress? Time to start planning for festival season.

Benji Lanyado

10, Mar, 2007 @11:32 AM

Playing away

Bunking off work during the World Cup might be more trouble than it's worth, writes Alice Wignall.

Alice Wignall

05, Jun, 2006 @10:55 PM

Letters: Playing away
Letters: Why does the Guardian refuse to acknowledge differences between England and Scotland?

09, May, 2006 @12:02 AM

Wine: Playing away

Most grapes enjoy a home advantage, but Malbec and Tannat lift their game on foreign soil.

Tim Atkin

08, Oct, 2000 @10:49 AM

Matthew Fort: Playing away

There's nothing Matthew Fort enjoys more than cooking at other people's homes - especially since it gets him out of the washing-up. But with dodgy ovens and cutlery to contend with, only the most foolproof dishes will do.

Matthew Fort

18, Jun, 2005 @10:40 AM

Children's activity holidays

Ros Taylor, net nanny, runs the rule over children's activity holiday websites

Ros Taylor

14, Apr, 2001 @6:23 PM

Summer camps

Ros Taylor plays around on the web pages of summer camps

Ros Taylor

13, Nov, 1999 @5:55 PM

Article image
Playing away

Your kids wouldn't be seen dead on holiday with you anymore, but you don't think they're old enough for a fortnight in Spain with their mates. Debbie Davies explains why adventure holidays offer the perfect solution for urban children

Debbie Davies

25, Apr, 2002 @6:08 PM