An era of tonal solidity and depth, by George

Tue, Sep 25, 2012, 01:00

In his two decades at the NSO, conductor George Hurst brought a kind of middle-European firmness and purpose to the orchestra’s playing

GEORGE HURST, first principal conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra, has died at the age of 86. As well as being a conductor he was a teacher of the great and the good among conductors, and the list of his Irish pupils includes Robert Houlihan, who went on to join him as a tutor at his celebrated Canford Summer School of Music. He was even an inspiration to Simon Rattle: a George Hurst performance of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony turned the young Rattle’s head towards conducting.

George was one of those conductors who could transform the sound of an orchestra over the course of a couple of rehearsals for a single concert. That’s exactly what he did the first time I heard him, back in the days when the then RTÉSO had no proper hall in which to play and gave its subscription concerts at the Gaiety Theatre. There was an extraordinary electricity in his handling of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, a work that effectively heralded the future of orchestration.

George not only seemed to have spotted its every special touch but also knew how to make the players deliver them.

Rehearsals were pretty fraught, with some players venting their grievances to his face, and although he returned for a concert not long after the National Concert Hall was opened, his appointment as principal conductor, announced in June 1988, took most people, especially the members of the orchestra, by surprise. In the end, his relationship with RTÉ lasted just 14 months. It was his difficulties with management rather than with the players that saw him step down from what, from January 1990, had become the National Symphony Orchestra.

I had dinner with him on one occasion and felt at times from his questioning as if everything about me was under the microscope. If I was going to be writing about him week in, week out, he wanted to find out all he could about my musical background and musical preferences. And it wasn’t just me he was curious about. He hadn’t been able to make sense of the picture RTÉ management had painted for him of the music scene in Dublin, so he had question after question to ask about orchestral repertoire here, as well as audience taste in and responses to all kinds of music. I photocopied old season brochures and sent them to him, so that he could have chapter and verse on some of these issues rather than just my word.

Early 1991 saw RTÉ in considerable disarray, as it dealt with a shrinking budget from the fallout of the Broadcasting Act 1990. The musicians of the NSO and the RTÉCO refused to merge for a performance of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony at the end of January, and the industrial dispute that followed saw the cancellation of concerts. In March, George tendered his resignation, issuing a statement to say his departure had nothing to do with the players and he would be submitting “a full report” to the broadcaster’s board of management.

It’s the kind of departure from which you might expect there to be no return. But George was canny in his business dealings, and he conducted the orchestra again, in Dublin and on a 10-concert tour of Germany, in 1992. He returned to conduct the RTÉCO in 2000, and, just as he had with the RTÉSO 20 years earlier, he made the orchestra shine by taking it fully out of its comfort zone.

The last time I spoke to him was in 2007, in the full heat of the Joyce Hatto scandal. Hatto was the minor British pianist who, in her 70s, had issued a stream of recordings, much praised in certain quarters, that turned out to be recordings by other players – she borrowed generously from John O’Conor’s Beethoven CDs. Before she got around to faking her work in the studio, Hatto had made some genuine recordings, some of them in partnership with George. He remembered her clearly, and also her husband, William Barrington-Coupe, widely perceived as the brains behind the fakery.

He called her “a charming lady”, although he didn’t have much that was positive to say about her playing. He did, however, have a high opinion of Barrington-Coupe’s musical judgment, and, if he’s right, that would certainly go some way to explaining the success of the fakery, which was ultimately undone by a computer retrieving from the online Gracenotes database the name of the real performer for one of Hatto’s CDs.

In Ireland, George will be fondly remembered for ushering in a new era of tonal solidity and depth in the playing of the NSO. He was 64 when he took up his role with the orchestra, and his manner was very much that of an elder statesman. He was interpretatively painstaking, sometimes to the point of becoming pedantic. At his best he brought a kind of middle-European firmness and purpose to the orchestra’s playing. Sadly, none of his work here was documented on CD.

* Friday night was Culture Night, which attracted attendances of 300,000 for a free celebration of culture. It certainly says something about the appetite for culture that a full-price performance of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro by DLR Glasthule Opera that same night was able to attract a full house, too.

The purse strings are still tight for this young opera company, so tight that the printed programme carried a note from director Helene Montague explaining: “Due to the restrictions of budget we were unable to pay a design fee or build a set, so I decided to set this production in a rehearsal room with all its advantages and disadvantages.”

Necessity being the mother of invention, this sounded like a promising set-up. But, in the event, Montague didn’t make much out of her opportunity, and, having gone to the trouble of setting it up, she pretty much let the rehearsal scenario fade from view.

The Pavilion Theatre in Dún Laoghaire is one of those many boom-time theatres built without an orchestra pit, meaning unorthodox solutions have to be found. On Friday, David Brophy conducted an orchestra positioned on the left of the stage. Yet he managed to keep his players from drowning the singers, although I wasn’t enamoured of the brisk soullessness of his music-making.

Star of the evening for me was the knowing Susanna of Jennifer Davis, a young singer who sounded as if she were made for Mozart.

* The National Chamber Choir were in strong voice under David Hill at the Hugh Lane Gallery on Sunday. Too strong for my taste, as the result was often a wall of sound, and the Equinox programme, contrasting light and dark in works by Tallis, Victoria, Poulenc, Rutter and Bach, turned into 65 minutes of white and black. The singing, per se, was impressive. The style of the music-making was not.


mdervan@irishtimes.com

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