The Brussels Philharmonic made its Irish debut in style at the National Concert Hall on May 31st. The orchestra, which was founded by the Belgian public service broadcaster in 1935, has, like our own RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, been through many name changes, and only reached its current designation in 2008 when Swiss conductor and composer Michel Tabachnik became its music director and chief conductor.
The orchestra’s current chief conductor is Stéphane Denève, but the NCH concert was conducted by Hervé Niquet, whose only previous Irish appearances have been with the early-music performers of his Concert Spirituel at Kilkenny Arts Festival.
Niquet's style with his Belgian players in standard repertoire was clean and incisive. Fauré's Masques et bergamasques Suite of 1919, which actually draws on material composed as early as 1868, had a wonderfully light spring in its step, and a refreshing outdoor breeziness. This suite features regularly in the work of the Ulster Orchestra in Belfast. I can't trace a performance of it by one of the RTÉ orchestras since 1996. Niquet's deft handling would make you wonder what the programmers at RTÉ have against the music.
Barry Douglas was the soloist in the Schumann Piano Concerto. His playing was dramatic and big-boned, and unpredictable in the best possible way. Nothing seemed taken for granted, no corners were cut, no conventional wisdom was left unexamined.
The evening ended with Liège-born César Franck’s Symphony in D minor. This is a work that can sound imposingly lumbering, the composer seeming to shift his material through different keys as if engaged in a series of gear shifts. The originality of the approach, the strength of the atmosphere that is created, the haunting orchestration of the slow movement are never to be doubted. But the mechanism can sometimes seem a little contrived.
Niquet’s approach generated a high level of excitement by giving the impression of being at once tightly controlled and borderline unstable. It was as if the players spent a lot of time leaning dangerously forward, head into the wind of a storm. The celebrated cor anglais solo of the slow movement (“Whoever heard of a cor anglais being used in a symphony?” one Paris Conservatoire academic is reputed to have scoffed) was also beautifully done. The technical detail of the orchestra’s playing, which was weightier and fuller than we are used to from the NSO, might not have always been ideally refined, but the musical characterisation never fell short.
The Lismore Music Festival, founded in 2010 by Jennifer O'Connell and Dieter Kaegi, has become the Lismore Opera Festival. The change is intended "to better represent what we are all about", which has mainly been opera, although an increase in the number of the recital programmes and a gala concert is promised for 2017.
Lismore has over the years had its fair share of weather problems. And the weather has an impact. The marquee erected over the Lismore Castle stable yard is open at one end, and the performers are subject to the elements. This year’s sunshine must be what the founders wish for every year.
The stable setting was the inspiration for this year's updating of Mozart's Così fan tutte to, well, a modern stable. Cue some real live horses gazing out over the half doors, and a horseback ride (carefully managed by minders) off to the wars for Ferrando and Guglielmo. It was a real coup de théâtre.
Lismore is unusual among Irish opera providers in taking a dual language approach to opera. The recitatives, with the text often updated to include contemporary references, are given in English, the arias in the original language. It certainly helps in keeping the audience abreast of the words, and, unlike surtitles, it prevents people laughing at something funny they have read but not yet heard.
The opera was directed by Damon Nestor Ploumis, who also took the role of the arch-manipulator Don Alfonso – an interesting doubling-up, giving control of the actual production to the character who also controls the plot.
His four victims were a mixed bunch: Rachel Croash's Fiordiligi and Gavan Ring's Guglielmo were a much more refined couple than Michelle Daly's Dorabella and Nicholas Ransley's Ferrando. Lismore regular Sandra Oman as the maid Despina excelled in disguise as a moustachioed notary.
The conductor, Killian Farrell, worked hard and successfully at getting a varied range of Mozartian colours from his small chamber ensemble. He drove the music firmly but also rather stiffly, and seemed to want a fullness of tone that actually proved counterproductive. Così fan tutte is not a heavy opera. But there was a kind of insistence from the instrumentalists and a pressure in the singing that made it seem so on this occasion.
Tenderness and affection were in short supply. A lighter, gentler touch would have gone a long way to varying and deepening the expressive world of this production. Rachel Croash produced moments of fine-spun tone that clearly showed how readily soft singing can actually carry in this semi-outdoors space.
Bad news for Goode
There's bad news and good news for this year's Great Music in Irish Houses Festival, which began last night. Next Saturday's big attraction, American pianist Richard Goode in Schubert's last three piano sonatas, is now off the menu. Goode is suffering from a minor injury and has had to withdraw. However, his place at Killruddery House will be taken by Denis Kozhukhin, who will play a programme of Haydn, Brahms and Prokofiev.