Kirkos invite their audience into the twilight zone

Classical music round-up: The young ensemble played Messiaen’s dark music – which he composed as a POW – in near-darkness

It's turning out to be a good month for musical exploration. Last week I wrote about Kurtág's Ghosts, in which Italian pianist Marino Formenti took a fresh approach to the venerable institution of the piano recital. This week it's the turn of the young ensemble Kirkos, who gave the first of their Blackout concerts in the Katherine Brennan Hall of the Royal Irish Academy of Music on Friday.

Like many young ensembles, Kirkos take themselves very seriously. This was reflected in the thoroughness with which they followed through their idea of presenting “dark music played in darkness”.

The dark music of the first programme was Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time, written when the composer was incarcerated as a prisoner of war in Görlitz, Lower Silesia. Messiaen had managed to keep some precious scores with him, from the Brandenburg Concertos of Bach to Berg's Lyric Suite. In the camp, he found a violinist (Jean Le Boulaire), a clarinettist (Henri Akoka), and a cellist (Étienne Pasquier), for whom he wrote a trio, which had to be played in the washrooms. This prompted the idea of a bigger undertaking, so he added himself as pianist.

The work he produced, one of the longest and most mystically concentrated in all of chamber music, premiered in January 1941, with a battered old upright piano called into service before an audience of prisoners. “Never,” said Messiaen, “have I been heard with as much attention and understanding.”


The Kirkos performance began before listeners even got into the building. The front door was closed, the interior dark. After admission into the dimly lit foyer, people were allocated a number and escorted towards the back of the building by black-clothed attendants wearing white face masks and carrying tiny paper lanterns suspended from black poles.

The auditorium was laid out with tables. There was food and drink, supplied by Gruel Guerrilla and the French embassy, and performing stations on three sides of the space as well as on the stage itself. The finger food was for consumption during the Messiaen, the containers’ clear plastic covers etched with the numbers of the musical movements to show which item to eat when. During the performance, two strips at the front of the stage lit up progressively, light by light, so that everyone could know which movement was being played.

It would, I suspect, be a breach of safety regulations to have a public performance in total darkness. Kirkos’s compromise involved lighting the music stands for the musicians (ritualistically guided to and from their places by the lantern carriers). It was dim enough to make the food hard to see, and definitely more an experience for the nose and the tastebuds than for the eye.

Kirkos began life as a student group, set up to provide a platform for music by student composers. The contemporary is still firmly in their sights, and the Messiaen was preceded by four new works written for the concert by Kevin Volans (clarinet:solo), Roger Doyle (Conscious Respects for piano solo), Ed Bennett (Celloops for cello solo) and Robert Coleman (Lustrum for violin solo). The players (Léonie Bluett, Máire Carroll, Yseult Cooper Stockdale and Róisín Walters) all played with a band of black masking painted around their eyes.

Printed programmes were provided, although they were doubly useless in the circumstances. The light was too dim to read by, and much of the text was blacked out – literally, with broad brush strokes of black ink that grew in size, page by page, until not a single word or letter could be deciphered. Separate copies, perfectly readable, with notes and biographies, were provided as a parting gesture.

For atmospherics and attention to details of presentation, Kirkos score a bullseye. In terms of total darkness, the rules of engagement are exactly the same. If that’s what you want, just close your eyes. But if you choose to keep them open, you are unlikely to remain unaffected by the special care that’s been taken by Kirkos and their production partners, Ensemble Music.

And the musical performances? Well, Messiaen’s quartet is notoriously challenging, with a rhythmic intricacy that can be particularly demanding in the fast movements, and a need for long-spanned, visionary calm in the slow ones. Kirkos’s playing was rather rough-edged, the ensemble not yet bedded in, the colours not quite true, the fervent spaciousness of the slower music not yet fully at the players’ command.

The potential of the group was well suggested in the playing of the solo items, of which the most impressive was Bluett’s handling of the obsessive Volans, in which the “solo” of the title was consistently undercut through offstage effects.

Prokofiev happy and sad

Unusually, the weekend saw two concerts by the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra. The first, on Friday, brought principal conductor Alan Buribayev’s cycle of the Prokofiev symphonies to a close with the Seventh Symphony.

Buribayev usefully offered performances of both endings that Prokofiev provided for this piece. The second of those arose from the fact that the first was regarded as too downbeat by members of the Stalin Prize Committee to warrant a first prize, and Prokofiev was persuaded to deliver a “happy ending” to secure the coveted award. Buribayev certainly managed to make the revision sound cursory rather than persuasive.

Friday's star was Finghin Collins, who took a grip on the stormy emotions of Brahms's First Piano Concerto as if the piece might have been written for him.

The second concert, on Sunday, was held to mark the 150th anniversary of the Great Exhibition for which the Earlsfort Terrace building, which houses the National Concert Hall, was originally built.

The programme, conducted by Robert Houlihan, opened with the bombast of the Coronation March from Meyerbeer's La Prophète (which featured in the opening ceremony of 1865), Brahms's Academic Festival Overture (to mark the building's conversion to university use in 1883), the Prelude and Liebestod from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, powerfully sung by Miriam Murphy (the opera premiered a month after the opening of the Great Exhibition), and Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto, with the dazzling Maxim Vengerov (commemorating the fact that the great violinist Joseph Joachim performed at the Great Exhibition less than a month after its opening).

It’s strange that the NCH should find nothing in the musical concentration of its own 34-year tenure in the building specifically worth commemorating, although Vengerov has played there before and will be returning again next May.