Who lives in a house like this?
The KBC Great Music in Irish Houses festival is taking a liberal view of its title – which is not without its benefits
In the old days, I heard it said of what was then the Festival in Great Irish Houses that its fans were more likely to be excited about a particular year’s choice of houses, than about the performers or the music. The festival, now known as KBC Great Music in Irish Houses, has kept the houses in its name but rather strayed from them in its programme. I attended the first four concerts of this year’s programme, and found myself wondering what a festival that purports to offer music in “houses” was doing at the National Concert Hall or the Irish Waterways Visitor Centre.
The visitor centre, at Grand Canal Quay in Dublin, does at least offer the kind of intimacy that the festival’s houses of yore did, and hearing a violinist of the fiery temperament of Alina Ibragimova at close quarters is a very special kind of thrill.
Musically, she’s very much a straight talker, someone who’s prepared to take composers at their word. She seems almost to shun the conventions that see so many performers broadening the tempo to accommodate particular technical challenges, smoothing melodic contours in case they be perceived as too rough, or softening the impact of transitions lest they appear too abrupt. When Ibragimova sounds different, it’s often because she’s delivering exactly what’s in the composer’s score.
Her playing of Prokofiev’s two violin sonatas with Steven Osborne on piano was edge of the seat stuff, the First exuding a kind of dark heat, the more songful Second sounding all the more impressive for being drained of some of its sweetness. Between the two was the stillness of Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel. The evening’s one drawback was instrumental. Osborne was provided with a short piano, too light in the bass to provide the weight of sonority that’s required at key moments in the first of the Prokofiev sonatas.
Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt returned to the festival to play at the NCH. She seemed to want to treat Schubert’s Valses nobles, D969, as being rather grander statements than they actually are, and was taken well outside her comfort zone by Liszt’s Sonata in B minor. She was, however, on home territory in the second half, when she offered the first 10 fugues from Bach’s The Art of Fugue, introducing them with insight and wit, and playing them with a suave finesse that made their knottiness seem almost easy on the ear and, at the same time, presented them as a pianistic tour-de-force.
My two other festival concerts were disappointing. Tenor Paul McNamara in the Peppercanister Church took an inappropriately pressured Wagnerian approach to a range of songs not by Wagner, and he sounded fully at home only when he got to an encore that was actually by Wagner. And the Apollon Musagète Quartet were disappointingly wide of the mark in Killruddery House in big quartets by Tchaikovsky (his First Quartet) and Schubert (the Death and the Maiden Quartet).
An Earnest UK premiere
Friday brought the UK stage premiere of Gerald Barry’s The Importance of Being Earnest at the Royal Opera’s Linbury Studio Theatre in London – the world premiere staging was given by the Opéra national de Lorraine in Nancy in February, and the Irish premiere is due from NI Opera in Derry in October.
The opera is in demand because, although it truncates the text (Barry estimates he ditched two thirds of it), it leaves the essentials of the Wilde intact, and it is very funny. Kasper Holten, the Royal Opera’s director of opera, gives the composer the compliment of calling it “the first great comic opera of the 21st century”. Although he’s clearly giving himself and his company a pat on the back, too, successful comic operas are so rare these days that you have to take his suggestion seriously.