The magical world of IMS Prussia Cove
“Where words fail, music speaks.” So said author Hans Christian Andersen, and Hungarian violinist Sándor Végh would surely have agreed. In 1972, Végh launched a series of international musicians’ seminars (IMS) on the family estate of Hilary Tunstall-Behrens, at the beautiful Prussia Cove between Porthleven and Penzance. Their aim: to provide a creative haven away from the distractions of daily urban life, for professional players of any age or nationality to practise chamber music.
Masterclasses and rehearsals took place in Porth-en-Alls, the house built by Hilary’s grandfather. Half a century later, they still do. Many well-known names have passed through its doors, including virtuoso cellist Steven Isserlis, who first attended IMS Prussia Cove as a teenager and is now its artistic director.
In September, IMS hosts a programme of events alongside its annual Open Chamber Music seminar to mark this important milestone, including a special exhibition of its archive collection at Kresen Kernow in Redruth (including a family workshop on September 24), and a series of outreach workshops in local primary and secondary schools. There will also be a sale of portraits by Romi Behrens – Hilary’s sister-in-law – of IMS musicians, patrons and helpers from the 1970s onwards.
Tim Boulton attended his first IMS in 1979 at the tender age of 19, and attributes his lengthy career in music in large part to the influence of IMS and its charismatic co-founder. Today, he is a driving force in music education and provision in the county, directing Cornwall Youth Orchestra and running the Concerts Penzance series. He will lead IMS’ outreach project, with aspiring young musicians learning alongside chamber music professionals.
“I fell into IMS Prussia Cove by accident, when a friend of a friend of a friend suggested I volunteer in the kitchens,” he recalls. “I’d never been to Cornwall and had no idea what I was letting myself in for. I hitch-hiked from London and ended up on a track leading further and further into nowhere, with this beautiful sea and stunning landscape.
“The course itself was a bit of a whirlwind, but it gave me the chance to hear Sandor Végh speak, and his influence on my musical life has been enormous.”
Soon, Tim was taking part in viola classes and keeping Easter and September free every year. “IMS became an important part of my life. I learned much more about music as a language there than I ever did in my formal musical education.
“That the courses took place in Cornwall, rather than in London or a European city, meant our music reflected the waves of the sea, the way the wind was changing, the feeling of motion. We spoke to each other through our music.”
Hearing Sandor Végh speak took some getting used to: “He used a kind of home-made Esperanto, combining words from the many languages he spoke and using whichever best conveyed what he wanted to say. Sometimes, that language would be music. At first, I just heard words, but when I eventually understood what he meant, it was a revelation.”
Végh believed in music as a means of communication, and that playing an instrument represented an intimate, whole-body experience for the performer, making them physically and emotionally as one. This approach was further enhanced by an emphasis on chamber music: the art of playing one instrument to a part, with no conductor, requiring players to develop a deep connection with each other.
The residential courses offered the opportunity to hear musicians from all over the world, at the top of their game, in beautiful venues. “I met musicians who seemed untouchable but who have become long-standing colleagues and even friends – it’s the most extraordinary community,” says Tim. “Many of us started here at IMS, and there’s a sense among us that we carry a responsibility for passing on Végh’s traditions.”
The intense privacy of the early days has relaxed somewhat, and the seminars are accompanied by concerts around west Cornwall with a fervent following (free tickets for audience members aged eight to 25). “Some of our members remember seeing Steven Isserlis during his first visit, and have watched his meteoric rise with interest,” says Alexandra Maund, chair of the Friends of IMS Prussia Cove.
The group takes on a considerable and important chunk of the responsibility of fundraising, largely through organising and staffing concerts. It has a membership of around 550, two-thirds of which is in Cornwall but many of whom live out of county and even abroad. “Some are highly qualified in music and play instruments, but it’s the love of listening to live music that drives most of us,” says Alex.
Like many events, the seminars were cancelled or moved online during the pandemic. “We missed it terribly – at the first concert, players almost cried with joy at being able to play for a live audience again.”
Mullion-based luthier Mark Jennings sets up his studio on site during seminars and talks to musicians about their instruments, helping with problems where necessary. He’s fond of sporting analogies, describing the musicians as “the Premier League”; of his own contribution, he adds: “Like a Formula 1 driver knowing what goes on under the bonnet, I hope I help musicians understand and appreciate the construction of their instruments, whether old or new.”
Over the last five years, Mark has been working with German colleague Peter Greiner to craft a new string quartet for IMS; with the cello due to be finished this summer, the instruments will be played together for the first time during the September seminar, and at the prestigious Wigmore Hall in November. In the long-term, they will be loaned to young musicians in need of instruments while finding their feet.
“These are some of the best musicians in the world – Premier League stuff – and most play instruments that are old and valuable instruments, so it’s a challenge to make a new quartet that will be good enough,” says Mark. “In some ways, I’m sad this collaboration is coming to an end, but I’m really excited to hear the instruments played together – and knowing that will happen at the Wigmore is very special.”
The feeling one gets from all involved is that of a tight-knit, dedicated band of brothers. “It’s nice to be part of the IMS family,” says Mark, while Tim Boulton adds: “It makes me feel proud – or, more accurately, it’s a privilege.”
Open Chamber Concerts – September-October 2022
Friday, September 16: Marazion Community Centre, 7.30pm
Saturday, September 17: Trelowarren Chapel, 7.30pm
Sunday, September 18: St Hilary Church, 2.30pm
Friday, September 23: St John’s Hall, Penzance 7.30pm
Saturday, September 24: St Buryan Church 7.30pm
Sunday, September 25: Princess Pavillion, Falmouth 3pm
Friday, September 30: St Pol de Leon Church, Paul, 7.30pm
Saturday, October 1: St Michael’s Mount, 2pm
Sunday, October 2: King Charles the Martyr, Falmouth, 3.30pm
Archive exhibition: September 20 to 24, Kresen Kernow, Redruth.