Jörg Widmann fights the Round Room – with some success
The Irish Chamber Orchestra’s second attempt at taming the Mansion House room’s intractable acoustic brought some progress
Jörg Widmann. Photograph: Marco Borggreve
The Irish Chamber Orchestra has form when it comes to grappling with acoustic challenges. Back in the 1990s, the orchestra played a long game in trying to tame the swimmy sound of St Flannan’s Cathedral in Killaloe, Co Clare, where the orchestra had established an annual festival. Platforms were erected for performers, and a range of acoustic treatments tried out, year after year, in an attempt to mitigate the blurring effect that listeners were presented with.
St Flannan’s is not the only venue the orchestra has tried to reform. The move of most of the orchestra’s Dublin concerts from the National Concert Hall to the RDS was predicated on a refit of the RDS’s concert hall. Here the problem was of sound that was too dry. The bookshelves along the side walls soaked up sound rather than reflected it, and there were no features to focus the sound for either players or audience.
The RDS undertook the enclosure of the books behind wooden panels, the installation of sound-reflecting panels and the creation of an adequate stage for the musicians. The sound improved, although the orchestra eventually ditched the stage and played by preference directly on the floor.
To the Round Room
Now that the orchestra has moved to the Round Room of the Mansion House, a similar process of adaptation seems to be under way.
Last month’s first concert there, conducted by Gábor Takács-Nagy, showed just how intractable the venue’s acoustic can be. This month’s return, under Jörg Widmann, saw the introduction of a proper platform, which had the immediate benefit of raising the players into the sight lines of a greater proportion of the audience.
The sound benefited, too, becoming drier and clearer. Widmann seemed to keep a tight rein on loud dynamics, so the sonic accumulations that muddied last month’s music-making were kept under better control. It’s one of those paradoxes of awkward venues that soft playing may communicate better and to a greater proportion of the listeners than a louder style.
Not everything in the venue is yet in proper order. The background whirs of electrical equipment still make their presence felt. You notice them explicitly when the music is very soft. But they actually impinge throughout, functioning as a kind of sonic haze or fog.
And there’s still a problem with the sense of dissipation that can be experienced. Last Wednesday this was most apparent in the performance of Mendelssohn’s Second Piano Concerto with the highly praised pianist Igor Levit, who was born in Russia (Nizhni Novgorod in 1987), but has lived in Germany since the age of eight, after moving there with his family.
He is a player of strikingly immodest ambitions. He began his recording career three years ago with the last three piano sonatas of Beethoven, followed up with Bach’s set of six partitas the following year, and in 2015 added a set that included major sets of variations from the last three centuries: Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, and Frederic Rzewski’s The People United Will Never Be Defeated, a set based on a Chilean resistance anthem, which was commissioned in the 1970s to share a programme with the Diabellis.
Levit’s Mendelssohn was hugely impressive. He delivered some of the rapid passage-work with a kind of water-chute fluidity, generating the feeling of a powerful but controlled torrent. One of the reasons these rapid flows worked so well was his ability to have them recede into the background so that key melodic material could stand out without undue emphasis.
Levit created these effects without giving the impression of needing major changes of colour. His special skill is in the control of shading and, in Mendelssohn, a trust in the music itself, which keeps him well away from the twin traps of over- stressed virtuosity and excessive sentimentality. The venue’s acoustic meant that, from where I was sitting, quite near the front, all this was achieved with the piano sounding about three times as far away as it actually was. There’s still more than a little work to be done on mastering the wayward acoustic.
Two of the evening’s other works were also by Mendelssohn: the 12th of his frighteningly accomplished teenage string symphonies, and an arrangement by Widmann of the slow movement of the slightly later Clarinet Sonata in E flat.
Widmann’s arrangement is for clarinet, strings, harp and celesta (played by Levit), and features ethereally attenuated sounds – almost glass harmonica-like glints and whistles – that bring to mind the surreal atmosphere of a Tim Burton movie.
Strange sounds, gestures and trajectory inform Widmann’s own String Quartet No 3 (Hunting Quartet), which was played by four soloists from the orchestra. It’s a work in which the idea of hunt and prey is brought to life vocally as well as instrumentally by the four musicians, with the cellist the ultimate victim. There was less to worry about acoustically in the quartet than in any of the evening’s other pieces.
The final piece was the Second Symphony by Weber, written in a rush in 1807, and sounding like the musical equivalent of those peculiarly-shaped vegetables that supermarkets work hard at keeping off their shelves. Like those vegetables, Weber’s music is fine in material and flavour, but decidedly peculiar in its proportions.
Widmann and his players brought to it the same kind of sensitive brio that they showed throughout the evening. As the wrap-up of a concert that opened with the music of one of the most astonishingly balanced minds of the 19th century, and went on to stranger and wilder things, Weber’s unorthodox symphony seemed to be absolutely in the right place.