Acoustics that enhance music, on its journey to the listener


There I was, sitting in the Konzerthaus in Berlin last Monday, as the Irish Chamber Orchestra (ICO) gave a concert in celebration of the Irish presidency of the Council of the European Union. The ICO’s principal guest conductor Jörg Widmann was in charge (multi-tasking as clarinettist and composer as well as conductor), and the evening’s other soloist was soprano Ailish Tynan. But it was the Czech guitarist Vladimir Mikulka who came into my head while I was listening.

It’s more than 10 years since I heard Mikulka play, and although hearing him perform is quite an experience, what brought him to mind was a remark he made when I interviewed him for this newspaper. We met up at the Wexford Festival, where he was due to give a recital in the old White’s Hotel, and the conversation came on to acoustics. The remark that etched itself in my memory was his assertion that for a performer the acoustic is 50 per cent of the instrument.

The Berlin hall was built in 1821 as a theatre, the Königliches Schauspielhaus, to replace a previous theatre that had been destroyed by fire. Goethe provided words for its opening in May 1821, and within a month it had mounted the première of Weber’s Der Freischütz, guaranteeing itself a cherished place in the history of music. As the Preußisches Staatstheater it hosted its last play in July 1944 (Schiller’s Die Räuber) and its last concert in April 1945, before being destroyed by Allied bombs.

It’s located in what used to be Russian-controlled East Berlin, and was rebuilt, this time as a concert hall, between 1979 and 1984. It was there on Christmas Day 1989 (when it was still called the Schauspielhaus) that Leonard Bernstein conducted players from orchestras in Munich, Dresden, Leningrad, London, New York and Paris in Beethoven’s Choral Symphony to mark the fall of the Berlin Wall, and changed the text of the finale, substituting the word Freiheit (Freedom) for the original Freude (Joy). It was given its current name in 1994.

It was the acoustic that had me thinking of Mikulka. Where I was sitting in one of the side boxes, the sound had immediacy, warmth, fullness, and bloom. The sound of voice and instruments lingered in the air as a kind of perfectly-proportioned halo. Unlike the lingering sounds of a typical cathedral, this halo was never obstructive. I can only imagine that, for a performer, it’s like a protection (no sound is going to die an early death) and an invitation (whatever you do will not just carry, it will be enhanced on its journey to the listener).

The programme was an ICO special, musically a weird mixum-gatherum, but often delivered with thrilling thrust. What is it, I wonder, that has the ICO so besotted with arrangements? On this occasion, Ailish Tynan, who marries seductiveness of tone with high musical intelligence better than any other Irish singer I can think of, was lumbered with over-elaborate arrangements of Schubert’s Der Hirt auf dem Felsen (orchestration by Jürgen Hinz) and The Last Rose of Summer (Thomas Moore, via 19th-century Limerick composer George Osborne and the ICO’s own Kenneth Rice).

Composers Elaine Agnew (Strings Astray) and Jörg Widmann (180 Beats Per Minute) must surely have been delighted with the fervency and point with which their post-minimalist pieces were delivered. Mendelssohn’s rarely-heard First Symphony had an explosive energy, even with the peculiarly cramped dynamics that Widmann mostly chose to explore – there were times when he managed to emulate the effects of electronic limiting. At the other end of the scale, when he allowed things to relax, there was always a special magic.

The Irish Baroque Orchestra,whose 2013 Masterworks series focused on chamber music by Mozart, could be described as an orchestra in search of a home. It currently plays in venues where the physical discomfort is extreme, and the acoustic in Dublin’s Christ Church Cathedral is hugely variable, depending on where you sit.

At least the sound in the Lutheran Church on Adelaide Road, where the Mozart concerts were given, is entirely apt for the music – how many other places in Dublin can you think of where an 18th-century fortepiano would work so well? I only managed to get to one of this year’s concerts, where Malcolm Proud was the fortepianist, playing, a little too formally for my taste, the Rondo in D, K485. The evening’s highlight was the great String Quintet in C, K515, and within that performance the highlight was the always poised and pointed cello-playing of Sarah McMahon (cellist of the Callino Quartet) in a quintet where Mozart gives the cellist plenty to do.

The weekend broughtme over to the wet and windy west, to Music for Galway’s Midwinter Festival 2013 – Beethoven: Genius, Passion and the Irish Connection. It’s the last of these festivals to be programmed by Music for Galway’s artistic director Jane O’Leary, who is handing over the reins to Finghin Collins. Her long-standing passion for developing musical life in Galway was marked by the presentation of a specially-commissioned sculpture by John Behan.

O’Leary set herself a challenging agenda in her Beethoven programmes. She chose to shy away from the well-known bodies of string quartets and sonatas for piano, violin and cello, since they are already so familiar. And with an Irish connection in mind, the die was effectively cast – Beethoven’s settings of Irish tunes, commissioned by the folk-song collector George Thomson, were for voice with the accompaniment of piano, violin and cello.

As Beethoven’s biographer Alexander Wheelock Thayer remarked about the folk-songs: “A very remarkable feature of the enterprise was, that the composers of the accompaniments had no knowledge of the texts, and the writers of the poetry no knowledge of the accompaniments.” Tenor Robin Tritschler showed that, in spite of their disjointed creation, these songs can still be delivered with grace and charm. Dutch soprano Charlotte Riedijk seemed by comparison quite lost with the simplicity of the material.

The Osiris Piano Trio were straight and dutiful partners. The best of the weekend’s vocal offerings came from Tritschler in a group of original songs with the sensitive accompanist Simon Lepper.

The Osiris offered a piano trio in each of the three concerts of the festival. Their performances of the Archduke and Ghost Trios were spoilt by the domineering approach of their pianist, Ellen Corver. The unflattering, dry acoustic of the Town Hall Theatre seemed to be part of the problem. Yet Corver was unrecognisable as the same player in the performance of Beethoven’s first trio (in E flat, Op 1 No 1), and in the Clarinet Trio (with clarinettist Paul Roe), where the music danced with an attractive, sprung lightness.

Pianist Rebecca Capova’s accounts of the two late sets of Bagatelles (Opp 119 and 126) erred on the side of gentility. And actor Rod Goodall’s readings of Beethoven’s letters didn’t get beyond the cliche of the composer as a wayward, misunderstood genius.

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