Changing reputations: Spohr spurned, Rachmaninov reclaimed

Several recent concerts highlight how composers’ acclaim can change over time

It can be fascinating to trace the changing reputations of composers and their music. Take the case of Louis Spohr. Sixteen years before his death in 1859, the discerning English critic JW Davison ranked him with Bach and Beethoven, declaring that his music “will survive until art is on its deathbed”. Within 50 years, Davison was proved wrong, and nothing since has changed the general perception that Spohr epitomises the composer whose music achieved its highest potency during and around his lifetime.

Another more complicated case is that of Sergei Rachmaninov. He was born in 1873, and became the epitome of the virtuoso pianist-composer. After his death in 1943, it was mainly his piano music that kept his name in concert repertoires, but even then critical opinion was polarised. The 1954 edition of the Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians declared: "The enormous popular success some few of Rakhmaninoff's [sic] works had in his lifetime is not likely to last, and musicians never regarded it with much favour."

How things change. The wide-ranging programme for the concert at the National Concert Hall last Tuesday, to mark the 140th anniversary of his birth, was as uncontroversial as it was welcome.

The concert was presented by a number of Irish and Russian musicians, and it included a few piano pieces that have always remained in the repertoire, but it was dominated by vocal music.


A number of recent commentators have observed that vocal music lay at the heart of Rachmaninov’s compositional thinking. And a deeply perceptive student recently remarked to me, after her first hearing of the Piano Concerto No 3, that “it’s all vocal, you know”.

For all the instrumental elaboration in piano and orchestra, the fundamental progression of parts is indeed vocal – beautifully linear and shapely.

The best moments in this concert came in those performances that grasped this linearity. It was fascinating and fun to hear a group of five traditional Irish musicians, led by Dave Fadden, playing sets of jigs, reels and airs formed from themes by Rachmaninov. But I especially cherished the beautiful duo playing from pianist Darina Gibson and cellist Aisling Drury-Byrne, in an arrangement of Vocalise.

Impressive too was the insightful singing of baritone Benjamin Russell in three songs from Opus 4 , and choral works from the all-female Rathdown Cantori Choir and the male-voice Celtic Choristers.

Among the choral pieces, one stood out – a well-shaped, poised account of Ave Maria from the All-Night Vigil, by the combined choirs under conductor Ethel Glancy.

Verdi humbly answers his critics
Friday night at the NCH featured a choral work with a towering but sometimes controversial reputation – Verdi's Requiem. It was completed in 1874, and was dedicated by the composer to the memory of the great novelist Alessandro Manzoni.

In a heartfelt spoken introduction to the work, this concert’s conductor, Kenneth Montgomery, dedicated the performance to the late Seamus Heaney.

A memorable critical response to this piece came from the conductor, composer and pianist Hans von Bülow. At first he dismissed it as an opera in ecclesiastical dress – an opinion that might have validity when you consider that some of the music originated as sketches for operatic material. A few years later he found himself moved to tears by a performance, so he wrote an apology to Verdi who, with characteristic humility, responded that von Bülow’s first opinion was probably the more accurate.

Although the text is sacred, the music needs to be presented with theatrical intensity. That is what it got here, with Montgomery conducting the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, the RTÉ Philharmonic Choir and a strong line-up of soloists: soprano Miriam Murphy (whose higher register occasionally showed uncharacteristic signs of stress), alto Imelda Drumm, tenor Bruce Sledge and bass-baritone Andrew Greenan (replacing Matthew Best).

The piece has its longeurs. It requires the performers to strike that paradoxical balance between passion that comes from being gripped by the music and technical control that comes from having a good grip on the music. This performance had that. Every second seemed to count; orchestral playing was strongly defined in dramatic character and, even though there were occasional balance problems between orchestra and choir, the strong choral singing and the general dramatic definition overwhelmed such concerns.

Dramatic grip was also a dominant feature of the previous night's concert, given by the Irish Baroque Orchestra at Christ Church Cathedral. Under the direction of Roy Goodman, the orchestra played music that epitomised changes of reputation that have occurred over the past 40 years or so. This concert proved that resurrecting forgotten music does not inevitably mean one has to breathe life into a corpse.

The six concertos and sinfonias written by German and Austrian composers between 1740 and 1770 included one work each by Haydn and Mozart. Of these, I shall never forget the astonishing playing on natural horn by Anneke Scott in Haydn’s Concerto in D (HobVIId/3). She seemed to defy the laws of physics. But it was at least as instructive to hear how the music of comparatively forgotten composers can stand up with such compositional giants.

I was especially taken with the Sinfonia No 6 for horns and strings by Kirnberger, who nowadays is known mainly as one of the most important music theorists of the 18th century. This piece brims with a compact, muscular vigour that enables you to understand why he was so widely respected as a composer. Recapturing the life that led to such a reputation requires playing that convinces that this music deserves to live, and the technical ability and musical imagination to deliver. That is what the IBO did so well throughout this concert.

Michael Dervan is on leave