The musical year has its ups and downs in terms of how busy things are. January is quiet, February busy, March calmer. Festivals peak over the summer and there’s a surge in October and November. December sees a fading of regular concert programming in favour of Christmas-themed events.
For concert promoters there’s a belief system surrounding all of this that almost amounts to superstition. You can’t get people out in January, they say, because of the post-Christmas blues and bills, or in September because of all the back-to-school expenses and disruption.
There is evidence to the contrary. If there’s a really attractive offering, people will make the time and buy the tickets anyway. It’s the old story of one person’s challenge being another person’s opportunity.
I’ve long wondered if the quietness of March has anything to do with the time when the observance of Lent was a prominent feature of Irish life. Could it be that there’s some kind of collective memory that hasn’t yet updated to 21st-century behaviours?
The patterns do change, of course, and one of the flat periods that has changed radically in recent decades is Holy Week. Over time it has been transformed from a virtual no-go area into an almost perfectly normal time. A new tradition has grown up, of performances of Haydn's Seven Last Words in the version for string quartet. And Good Friday, when the pubs still remain closed, has become a day of musical celebration.
RTÉ's music division signed up to the new reality in 2013, when it offered its first annual Good Friday double bill. The pattern is a lunchtime event (choral or chamber music) followed by an afternoon Bach performance by the RTÉ Philharmonic Choir and RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra. We've had a St John Passion, the Easter Oratorio coupled with other works, and this year the St Matthew Passion, for which the Philharmonic was joined by RTÉ Cór na nÓg.
The NSO's Bach moved up a gear in the St Matthew Passion. Conductor Robert Howarth's approach was fluid, pacy and at times highly dramatic, and the orchestral playing impressively sinewy, as good as I've ever heard from these players in baroque repertoire.
The instrumental solos were well taken, the most memorable of them being the period-instruments flavour conjured up by leader Helena Woods, and the agility of viola da gamba player, Sarah Groser.
The choral singing was fresh and enthusiastic, although there were moments when the Philharmonic Choir was rather too obviously stretched by Bach’s demands. The group may be celebrating its 30th birthday this year, but unless I’m mistaken this is the first time it’s actually tackled this, the greatest of Bach’s passion settings.
A lot in any performance of a Bach passion hangs on the Evangelist, and the light, bright-toned narrative style of James Oxley was both involved and involving. He sang from memory and seemed to hang on every twist and turn of the story and the music, even when he was not himself singing.
The star among the other vocal soloists was mezzo soprano Sharon Carty, who was firm in tone, expressively to the point and with an almost instrumental sureness of delivery. Soprano Róisín O'Grady has exactly the right vocal timbre for this repertoire, but a tendency to swallow shorter notes deprives her of the fail-safe presence that Carty achieves. Philip O'Reilly was a solid, dignified Jesus, although the Pilate of Padraic Rowan and the tenor arias of Eamonn Mulhall were more variable.
Get in training for Bach
Most people I have spoken to are still absorbing the enormity of Kilkenny Arts Festival’s upcoming 18-concert, Eternal Bach celebration. But if you’d like to get in training, as it were, there’s plenty of Bach to be experienced before then.
First up is a concert at City Hall on April 16th, when the viol consort Phantasm play excerpts from The Art of Fugue and Mozart's arrangements of fugues from The Well-Tempered Clavier.
The great Chaconne in D minor, originally for violin solo, features in the Music Network tour by the mandolin and accordion duo of Avi Avital and Ksenija Sidorova (which visits Dún Laoghaire, Waterford, Tinahely, Mullingar, Dublin and Clifden between April 22nd and 27th).
Bach makes a fleeting appearance in Italian pianist Marino Formenti's wide-ranging Kurtág's Ghosts, a musical montage in homage to the Hungarian composer György Kurtág. It ranges from Machaut to Boulez, and from Ligeti to Stockhausen, and it gets its first Irish hearing at St Peter's Church of Ireland in Drogheda during Drogheda Arts Festival (May 2nd).
The Latvian Radio Choir's NCH programme (May 3rd) includes Immortal Bach, an intriguing homage by Norwegian composer Knut Nystedt (who died last December at the age of 99). And the Barrow River Arts Festival at Borris House in Co Carlow (May 15th to 17th), where Bach devotee Maya Homburger is one of the artistic directors, closes with the wonderful German soprano Anja Pöche joining Camerata Kilkenny for a programme that includes cantatas as well as instrumental works.
Colette Boushell, Victoria Massey, Eamonn Mulhall and Adrian Powter are the soloists with the Culwick Choral Society and Orchestra under Bernie Sherlock for a performance of the Mass in B minor at the NCH on June 3rd.
Later that month there are multiple offerings at the West Cork Chamber Music Festival. Russian violinist Alina Ibragimova joins Arcangelo under Jonathan Cohen for three Bach violin concertos (June 27th), David Cohen plays the First and Second Solo Cello Suites (June 28th), and the Young European Strings Chamber Orchestra under Ronald Masin play the Double Violin Concerto (June 29th).
The archive section of the West Cork festival's website (archive.westcorkmusic.ie) also includes a number of recordings by Bach, the Second Brandenburg Concerto (by Norway's Barokksolistene), the Harpsichord Concerto in D, BWV1054 (Malcolm Proud with Barokksolistene) from 2011, two solo cello suites (Natalie Clein) from 2012, and the Chaconne in D minor (Vadim Gluzman) from 2013. Like all of the audio items in the archive, these recordings can be streamed for free.
And the Good Friday performance of the St Matthew Passion is available in the Friday Concert section of the RTÉ Lyric FM website.