Around the Georgian houses
Nic an Ríogh’s aim in these events is to encourage audiences to engage not only with music but also with architecture
The harpsichord recital in Mountjoy Square – given by Malcolm Proud – was the latest in a series of concerts organised by The Drawing Room project and its artistic director Áine Nic an Ríogh
In 1758, Jacques Duphly published several pieces of music for harpsichord. Some 38 years later, an elegant Georgian townhouse at No. 25 in Dublin’s Mountjoy Square was completed, which last week hosted a performance of Duphly’s work.
They were not exact contemporaries but pretty close, with both music and building being new in the second-half of the 18th-century. For perspective, if two centuries later the same gap involved my own house – built in 1998 – then the music would have to have been new in 1960 – say, string quartets by Shostakovich (both Nos 7 or 8) or Elliot Carter (No. 2), or, if my sitting-room were a lot bigger, Carré by Karlheinz Stockhausen (for four orchestras and choirs).
The harpsichord recital in Mountjoy Square – given by Malcolm Proud – was the latest in a series of concerts organised by The Drawing Room project and its artistic director Áine Nic an Ríogh. The project grew out of her doctoral research into music, architecture and acoustics in 18th-century Irish country houses, and her concert series dates back to November 2014. It has spanned a wide range of music including string quartets and duos, a harpist, a barbershop quartet, a jazz trio, and the choir of Jesus College Cambridge, in Georgian venues in Henrietta Street, South William Street and North Great George’s Street as well as in Mountjoy Square among others.
Nic an Ríogh’s aim in these events is to encourage audiences to engage not only with music but also with architecture. And even though this aim does not extend to matching music and venue in terms of era – with Mountjoy Square and Duphly being no more contemporaneous than my house and Shostakovich – it was yet somehow quite easy on this occasion to blur the stylistic demarcations described by music history and reflect on the possibility, however improbable, of the house’s original owners hearing or even playing this baroque music in a room built during the classical period (just five years after the death of Mozart).
Malcolm Proud was playing on a 1985-built replica of a French harpsichord made in Lyons in 1711, thereby adding another era and another whiff of authenticity to the temporal equation. While he concluded with music by Jacques Duphly, the meat of his programme was two suites of pieces – the Ordres Nos. 22 and 27 – by Francois Couperin. And in truth, whatever of architecture, Georgian drawing-rooms and historicity, all the authenticity you could want was contained within Proud’s playing. His musical lines breathed with an unfailing grace as he applied small, beautifully shaped alterations to the music’s insistent baroque pulse. Despite the limitations on dynamics imposed by his two-manual instrument, Proud always found ways to evoke things like mood and the ideas suggested by the programmatic titles Couperin assigned to each movement. Ornaments were ideally measured – little exquisite throwaways that never threatened to steal centre-stage.
Centre-stage, on the other hand, is precisely where soloist and score reside in most big, romantic concertos. On Friday night, Stephen Hough was the soloist with the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra in Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 1. Visually neither a flamboyant romantic nor cast in warrior mold for the David-and-Goliath dynamic of a big concerto, Hough nonetheless was every bit as powerful, virtuosic and authentic in his delivery of Rachmaninov as was Proud in his of Couperin, however different the styles and genres. Rachmaninov wrote the first version of this work when he was a teenager at the Moscow Conservatory, and you are struck by its youthful energy and how keen he seems to be to make a big impression. These elements, combined with the influence of his hero, Tchaikovsky, and of his model – the Grieg concerto – are a constant presence. Hough channelled and amplified these influences for a performance that gave expression to a full range of boldly asserted emotion from excitement to tenderness.
In this he was nicely partnered by visiting conductor Richard Farnes who accommodated the lead so firmly yet unobtrusively established by Hough and the piano. Alongside his restrained account of Rachmaninov’s brooding tone poem The Isle of the Dead, it was his best work of the evening. After the interval, in Beethoven’s ebullient Symphony No. 7, Farnes didn’t quite control the boundary of that designation which certain orchestral works enjoy: a robust score. There were a few incursions into coarseness, notably in the finale.
A third keyboard player made a big impression over the past week. This was pianist Izumi Kimura in partnership with saxophonist Cathal Roche. They were playing Ian Wilson’s 2016 duo Possession, a 50-minute, part scored, part improvised fantasy based on dance musics from around the world. Fifty minutes is a long time, and for Kimura it was almost without break. Yet it appeared to cost her nothing and her playing shifted vividly with the changing moods of the music – now angry, now reflective, now celebratory. There was a chameleon-like element also to Roche’s part – divided between tenor and soprano saxophones – which matched Kimura for adapting to whatever mood or occasion was suggested by the essence Wilson distilled from the regions whose music he borrowed. Both players exhibited virtuosity and stamina in equal measure, as well as an unerring capacity to blend their own improvisation with whatever fixed scoring Wilson had given them.