An early music duo, and ‘Carmen’ by way of ‘Tallafornia’

Early music was on the agenda at two concerts, while OTC’s ‘Carmen’ was defiantly contemporary

Monica Huggett drives into music ‘with a sense of edginess, of danger’

Monica Huggett drives into music ‘with a sense of edginess, of danger’


It was in the early 18th century that people seem to have first become concerned about early music. An Academy of Vocal Music was set up in London in 1726 with a focus on the sacred music and madrigals of the previous two centuries. At the end of the 18th century, Gottfried van Swieten, a music-loving prefect of the Imperial Library in Vienna (and also an amateur composer), developed a taste for Handelian oratorio.

He commissioned Mozart to update Handel (the re-orchestrated Messiah was performed by the NSO in the Mozart celebrations of 2006), and he also had a direct hand in the late oratorios of Haydn.

The 19-year-old Mendelssohn’s 1829 revival of Bach’s St Matthew Passion in Berlin was a landmark (again involving a degree of re-composition), and later in the century a number of pianists undertook historical series of the entire keyboard repertoire. The most famous was Anton Rubinstein in the 1880s, but Max von Pauer did so more than two decades earlier and also far more comprehensively. Rubinstein’s survey remains notorious for its generosity – he included seven Beethoven sonatas in his second programme.

Louis Spohr’s Sixth Symphony of 1839 cast its four movements “in the style and taste of four different periods,” but the 19th-century’s most famous incursion into neo-baroque is probably the suite Grieg wrote for the centenary of the Norwegian writer Ludvig Holberg.

Debussy, Ravel and Enescu all wrote suites that echoed the manners of the baroque around the turn of the 20th century. Prokofiev’s altogether less reverential Classical Symphony appeared in 1917, Stravinsky’s Pulcinella, a re-visiting of Pergolesi for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, came three years later, and neo-classicism quickly became à la mode.

Although Nadia Boulanger took Monteverdi into the recording studio in the 1930s, it was not until the late 1940s that early music got its own record label, Archiv Produktion, courtesy of Deutsche Grammophon, and the 1960s brought a further burgeoning of activity.

The marketing people shifted into high-gear in the 1970s, peddling the concept of “authenticity”, the idea that if you studied the treatises of past periods and used the instruments of the time, you could achieve a performing style that was the musical equivalent of removing layers of varnish from the paintings of an old master. Ideology ruled to such a point that Brian Boydell – composer, scholar, professor and performer, whose Dowland Consort had brought much early vocal music to Irish audiences – once confidently predicted to me that within a few years no one would be playing Beethoven piano sonatas in public on modern pianos. More than 30 years on, that tide has yet to turn.

The fraught notion of authenticity, at least in its virulent, 1970s strain, has long faded and performing-style issues are rarely viewed in black-and-white terms. And the broad embrace of early music performing style in the 21st century was perfectly exhibited in two concerts last week that had little in common other than their focus on early music on period instruments.

Well, that’s not quite true. The Irish Baroque Orchestra, which played in the Freemason’s Hall on Wednesday, and Camerata Kilkenny, heard at the Hugh Lane Gallery on Sunday, both draw from the same pool of players, they’re both directed from the violin by women, and both programmes featured vocal music.

But the IBO’s Monica Huggett and Camerata Kilkenny’s Maya Homburger took very different approaches. Huggett showed a fondness for driving into music with a sense of edginess, of danger, of adrenaline-fuelled excitement.

The programme was most unusual, with everything in it tied somehow or other to 18th-century Dublin, allowing in Pepusch and Vivaldi, as well as composers who actually worked here (Handel, Dubourg, Geminiani, Pasquali), with room for tradition-crossing contributions from Siobhán Armstrong on metal-strung Irish harp.

The transition from orchestra to harp provided the concert’s most magical moment, collective dynamism giving way to the harp’s distinctively etched, silvery sound, with a floating aura that invites you to bask in it. Soprano Róisín O’Grady’s singing was alert and beautiful but at the same time strangely unengaging.

Homburger’s all-Bach programme with the German vocalists of the Calmus Ensemble was, by comparison, soft, warm, luxuriant. Some of the difference, no doubt, was a matter of the two venue’s acoustics. The chequerboard carpet of the Freemason’s Hall kept the sound dry; the gallery’s acoustic is altogether looser and more resonant.

Camerata Kilkenny gave the impression that time is to be treasured, not to be rushed, that the music was somehow to be dwelt in, not pressured, and who’s to argue when the music is by Bach?

The programme offered the Second Orchestral Suite, with Wilbert Hazelzet’s round-toned flute playing nimble and unforced; Bach’s motet Jesu, meine Freude , at times achingly gorgeous in the Calmus’s unaccompanied performance (the group’s soprano Anja Lipfert is a real star); and the cantata Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich , which was similarly overflowing.
Off to a flyer
Friday’s concert by the RTÉ NSO wasn’t the kind of sizzler that the Moscow State Orchestra had offered in an all-Russian programme under Pavel Kogan the week before. But conductor Alan Buribayev certainly found the kind of surge and sweep in Wagner’s Flying Dutchman Overture that was lacking in NI Opera’s staged performance in February.

Buribayev showed no fear either in heightening the energy or stilling the tranquillity of Brahms’s Third Symphony.

Edoardo Zosi, the suave soloist in Bruch’s G minor Violin Concerto, was altogether too studied.
Four-letter spice and energy that’s rife Gavin Quinn’s production of Bizet’s Carmen for Opera Theatre Company, which I caught at TCD’s Samuel Beckett Theatre on Saturday, has a lot of the chemistry that March’s Russian production at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre lacked.

Quinn and his designers, Aedín Cosgrove and Catherine Fay, have crossed Carmen with Tallafornia , and set it in a Spain that’s policed by the members of a particularly backward rural Garda station.

There’s spoken dialogue with four-letter spice, a lounging, no-good chorus, a band conducted by Andrew Synnott that runs to trumpet and drums, and engaging principals. Imelda Drumm is a feisty, self-confident Carmen and Michael Wade Lee’s Don José admirably takes everything in his apparently unstressed stride. OTC’s countrywide tour will resume for a further six performances in mid-October.

Awards meant in ‘Earnest’
Gerald Barry’s The Importance of Being Earnest , which gets its UK stage première in the Royal Opera’s Linbury Theatre on June 14th, has won the composer a Royal Philharmonic Society Music Award in the category of large-scale composition.

The award in the Concert Series and Festival category went to New Music 20x12, a series of 20 12-minute commissions by the PRS for Music Foundation, which included Conor Mitchell’s Our Day for NI Opera.

NI Opera’s own production of Earnest will tour to Derry, Belfast,Cork and Dublin in October and November.

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