Magyar maestro: Hungarian violinist and founder of the IMS, Sándor Végh (IMS)
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.