RTÉ’s Halloween menu is presented in the wrong order
The skill of the players is undermined by the concert’s unconventional structure
Enrico Pace is a class act, a man who understands what a vast range of sonorities a piano can be coaxed into yielding. Photograph: Marco Borggreve
Social life thrives on conventions. People dress up for a wedding, eat dessert at the end of a meal, and try not to make noise while they eat. The conventions are culture-specific. It can be difficult for us to adapt when sweet and savoury dishes are presented at the same time or when local practice involves slurping to enhance flavour or to signal satisfaction.
Conventions change over time, and that’s certainly true in the orchestral world. The RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra’s lunchtime programmes are like a buffet: lots to choose from. Their evening programmes usually run to three or four pieces, often as fixed in organisation as a meal of starter, main course and dessert.
Overtures usually come at the start. Concertos are usually placed before the interval. The heavier stuff, mostly a single work, comes later. Have a look at the rest of this year’s programmes at url.ie/wfwh. and you’ll know what I mean.
In the first half of the 19th century, things were different. When Paris’s Société des Concerts du Conservatoire gave its first concert in March 1828, the programme ran to eight items: Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, an overture, chorus and two movements from a mass by Cherubini, an aria and a duet by Rossini, a horn solo written and performed by Joseph Melfred and a violin concerto by Pierre Rode.
The Vienna Philharmonic’s first programme, in March 1842, featured Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, an aria and a duet by Cherubini, arias by Beethoven and Mozart, and Beethoven’s Consecration of the House and Leonore No 3 Overtures. And the New York Philharmonic’s first programme, in December 1842, included Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, excerpts from operas by Weber, Rossini, Beethoven and Mozart, a piano quintet by Hummel and an overture by Kalliwoda.
Twenty-first-century music lovers might object to the sheer length, variety and ordering of these programmes. In each case the Beethoven symphony was played first, and the programme ended with an overture, exactly the opposite of what we would expect today. They might cavil at the scheduling, too. The Vienna concert started at 12.30pm, the one in Paris at 2pm.
Last Friday the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra departed from current convention by offering an evening programme that ran to six items. It was billed as a Halloween programme, although the word itself appeared only on the cover of the programme, and none of the printed notes offered any further information on the musical connections.
The evening’s soloist, Italian pianist Enrico Pace, entered fully into the Halloween spirit. He appeared on stage with a toy skeleton and offered its hand for the leader to shake before playing Liszt’s Totentanz (Dance of Death) with the skeleton dangling from the side of the piano. The conductor, Jamie Phillips, got to shake the skeleton’s hand at the end of the piece.
Pace is a class act, a man who understands the vast range of sonorities a piano can be coaxed into yielding and who knows how to use them all with sensitively attuned virtuosity. He was, however, hampered by the programme order. Before the interval he had played Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, a work of scintillating virtuosity cut through with a vein of rich sentimentality that the altogether narrower focus of Liszt’s Totentanz had no hope of matching.
The two pieces were featured because of their use of the Dies Irae theme. But common sense would dictate the Liszt needed to be played first. In fact, the whole programme, I suspect, would have worked better if the order had been reversed.
Opening with Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite didn’t really give the evening anywhere to expand into. Twenty-first- century orchestral convention generally avoids opening with the main course, and that’s exactly what this programme did; the evening’s other items were excerpts from Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust and Dukas’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.
It was a pity, because Jamie Phillips showed at all times a fresh approach, bringing a young man’s eagerness for individuality (he’s currently assistant conductor with the Hallé Orchestra) to bear with impressive control and resolve. But the overall effect was the equivalent of good culinary skills being undermined by a menu that was presented in the wrong order.
The late John Ruddock, the musical mastermind behind the Limerick Music Association, and later the Association of Music Lovers, was a man of very specific musical taste. That applied to his choice of performers as well as music. He had his favourites, and he liked to have them again and again. Like anyone who had the opportunity to attend the concerts he promoted, I am greatly in his debt for the experiences he provided. In particular I remember his introduction of the Takács String Quartet when it was still led by Gábor Takács-Nagy.
I treasure my memories of their performances of the Bartók quartets, and also a performance of the Brahms Clarinet Quintet with fellow Hungarian Kálmán Berkes, who handled the improvisatory Hungarian flourishes of the slow movement with an extraordinary sense of spontaneity. Berkes and his Budapest Wind Ensemble, at once rustic and sophisticated, were also favourites of Ruddock, and he also introduced Irish audiences to the lived narratives of Austrian baritone Wolfgang Holzmair, whose partnership with English pianist Imogen Cooper was one of the wonders of the song recital in the 20th century.
When the Arts Council celebrated the work of Ruddock and his late wife, Doreen, in 2009, the line-up included Holzmair, English clarinettist Michael Collins, the Vogler String Quartet, Irish pianist Finghin Collins and German double-bass player Peter Riegelbauer.
All bar Holzmair (who is now retired) were back at the National Concert Hall on Saturday to celebrate a 90th-birthday concert that the indomitable promoter had planned but didn’t live to hear.
It was a concert of two halves, opening with Mahler’s early and undercooked Piano Quartet (Finghin Collins with members of the Vogler Quartet), followed by Brahms’s Clarinet Quintet (the other Collins with the Voglers), in which the suave beauty of the clarinet playing was contrasted with the slightly edgy sound of the quartet.
After the interval the Voglers were joined by four members of the Scharoun Ensemble (of which Riegelbauer is a member) for a performance of Schubert’s Octet that was like a masterclass in polished music-making: everything in proportion, a conversation among friends that ranged through sunlight and shadow, and from intimacy to romping, with a consistent air of perfection about it.
The Voglers were hardly recognisable as the same players who had performed before the interval. This was just the kind of thing that would have found Ruddock beaming with delight.