French Baroque back in vogue at the National Concert Hall

Magdalena Kozena makes singing seem like an entirely natural activity

This is already an annus mirabilis for the work of French composer Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764) in Ireland. The appearance of his music at the start of the month in an RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra concert has been followed by an even more generous helping the National Concert Hall (NCH) last Thursday, with Emmanuelle Haim's period instruments' ensemble Le Concert d'Astrée joined by mezzo soprano Magdalena Kozena.

Rameau is known to piano students through a handful of his harpsichord pieces. Many moons ago when I used to teach piano I delighted in introducing young ears to the vertiginous side-stepping harmonies of his L'enharmonique and the witty clucking of his La poule.

His works for keyboard and chamber ensemble are still the mainstay of his profile in Ireland, though anyone seriously interested in the theory of music will probably also have explored the writings which caused him to be dubbed “the Newton of music”. His perspective has held sway for hundreds of years.

The concert with Kozena and Haim was part of the National Concert Hall's current International Concert Series and the printed programme's introductory note by the hall's chief executive Simon Taylor highlighted the fact that music by composers of the French Baroque "is far less widely performed than that of their German and Italian contemporaries such as Bach, Handel and Vivaldi".

Rameau's profile at the NCH has been limited. I've only been able to trace a single pre-2018 21st-century performance of his work in the hall's main auditorium. That was when the Irish Chamber Orchestra played a suite from his Dardanus under Anthony Marwood in 2006.

The major 21st-century offerings of Rameau in Ireland have all taken place elsewhere. The greatest glory goes to the Irish Baroque Orchestra under Monica Huggett, who has been Rameau's most consistent advocate in Ireland, the European Opera Centre, which presented Dardanus at the University Concert Hall, Limerick, in 2011, and Opera in the Open, which staged Pygmalion in Dublin in 2015.

Taylor was obviously taking a risk in asking patrons of the NCH’s international series to take a punt on music from an area of repertoire that the hall has never really focused on before. His call was a good one, although there’s no doubt that the attendance suffered. He probably can not avoid that outcome in the short term if he is to broaden the musical reach of the repertoire in his concerts.

Musically speaking, he was splendidly rewarded. Kozena is one of those performers who makes singing seem like an entirely natural activity. She sings as if there is no artifice involved, as if the years of study and training have done nothing to reshape the singing voice she was born with.

She showed that natural ease of production and expression while delivering the potent expressiveness that is released through the balancing of stress and release in the vocal lines of Rameau and the evening’s other composer, Marc-Antoine Charpentier (1643-1704).

There was not much in the way of emotional lightness in the vocal items from Rameau's Hippolyte et Aricie, Dardanus, Castor et Pollux and Les Indes galantes or Charpentier's Medée. The texts spoke of cruelty, vengeance, lamentation, and the singing, weighed down by the tragedy, pierced the heart.

The lively and colourful instrumental numbers with their inventive orchestration did provide a welcome contrast. But the lingering darkness of the world of the voice was not fully lifted until the encores, through the joyous tilt of Handel's Dopo notte and the beguiling bittersweetness of Monteverdi's Sì dolce è il tormento. Anyone especially touched by the Monteverdi — which seemed to be most of the audience – can find a recording of it on Kozena's 2010 Deutsche Grammophon collection, Love Letters, and it is also available on YouTube.

British conductor Duncan Ward has been a regular guest with the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra since he made an impressive first appearance in Dublin conducting Bax, Lutoslawski and Beethoven in 2016.

His latest return on Friday brought a programme of rare Debussy (the late ballet, Jeux), frisky Poulenc (the Concerto for two pianos) and war-time Prokofiev (the Fifth Symphony).

There’s a kind of floating quality to the Debussy which makes the music seem both extremely elusive and somehow ever modern, certainly modern enough to have delayed its widespread appreciation for half a century or so after its premiere in 1913. Ward’s approach captured the piece’s haunting atmosphere with just the right detached clarity.

The soloists in the Poulenc, Alexander Bernstein and Fiachra Garvey, made the most of the piece's cartoonish mood-hopping, and they relished its high-jinks and easy sentimentality with equally persuasive fervour.

The Prokofiev symphony found Ward winding the tension too consistently high. It was as if he has yet to accept that when you create too many climaxes you might as well not be creating any at all. To be sure, the sonorities in themselves were often glorious. But like a misjudged series of explosions in a Hollywood blockbuster, this performance left an ongoing sensation of going relentlessly driven over the top.