Vanbrugh Quartet sound liberated in their post-RTÉ existence

ConTempo Quartet, on the other hand, were to take over as RTÉ’s string quartet in Cork in April, but things have been rather muted

A couple of years ago RTÉ announced changes to its support of chamber music. The national broadcaster didn’t propose to wipe the slate clean: RTÉ’s long-standing commitment to supporting the activities of a string quartet in Cork would remain. But the Vanbrugh Quartet’s role as the quartet that served RTÉ in Cork and around the country was up for grabs. A competitive tendering process was held last year, and the Vanbrughs lost out to Galway’s ensemble in residence, the ConTempo Quartet.

The chamber music report that RTÉ based its changes on was researched in 2009 and delivered in January 2010. The tendering process was announced in May 2013 and ConTempo’s success was announced this time last year. The Vanbrugh’s reign at RTÉ ended last December. The ConTempo’s three-year contract was to start in spring 2014.

RTÉ has shown little interest in the whole idea since then. Until some time in April 2014, the Vanbrughs were still featured on the RTÉ website, complete with a link to upcoming concerts, which, of course, were non-existent. That section of the website has disappeared. It has not been replaced by any information about ConTempo and their concerts.

When I asked RTÉ about this, I was told that it is planning “to restore website provision of this type of information within the next couple of weeks”.


Although RTÉ has not been doing much to publicise their events, the ConTempos have been giving concerts. One of the currently unresolved issues, however, is the Cork angle. According to the original RTÉ press release about ConTempo, “the appointment sees RTÉ maintain its commitment to chamber music and the string quartet medium, in Cork and beyond”. So far, the level of activity in the designated city has been minimal. There is major room for improvement.

The Vanbrughs, whose final years at RTÉ were marked by patchy publicity and promotion, may well feel that they have had a narrow escape. And their departure from RTÉ also seems to have been artistically liberating. Witness the four-concert Scoring History series they gave at the Engineering Library in the NCH last month. This marked the start of a three-year residency at the hall, and is supported by the DIT Conservatory of Music and Drama. Later series will include the complete quartets of Bartók and Shostakovich.

The first series is quite unlike any the quartet was involved with in its nearly 30-year relationship with RTÉ. It was given in conjunction with the Belfast composer Ian Wilson, now resident in Cork. Wilson turns 50 this month, and has a tally of 15 quartets to his name. With him as curator, the series amounted to an idiosyncratic survey of the string quartet, built around a selection of his own work.

Wilson talks engagingly about music, and is one of those composers with the knack of making you see why a particular idea caught hold of him and led to the writing of a particular piece. His spoken introductions to the music were spot-on. He communicated as easily about the other music on offer as about his own.

He gave each programme a title: Folk; Distant Lands; Conflict and Solitudes. He chose Shostakovich as the main representative of the 20th-century centre ground rather than Bartók, included Beethoven only through the knotty Grosse Fuge, and left out Haydn, Mozart, and the rest of the 18th century completely.

What was missing was a fuller background to the programme choices, an insight into the process of exclusion as well as inclusion, the kind of discussion that Wilson would have been well-qualified to provide as a series of in-depth background essays. All that was provided, however, was a single printed sheet.

I got to three of the concerts, from which the standout among Wilson's works was the new Alluvio, a response to the flooding in Cork earlier this year, in a series of morphing patterns, from light to threatening and disturbing, with off-centre, microtonal tension. And I never tire of Stravinsky's Three Pieces for String Quartet, post-Rite of Spring pieces that are as innovative in the domain of chamber music as the great ballet itself was in the world of the orchestra. I can't imagine how these raw, explosive, grotesque miniatures must have affected the audience at their premiere in Chicago in 1915.

Rachlin’s power play

Friday's programme from the RTÉ NSO under Julian Rachlin prompted a similar thought. Rachlin's handling of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony surged with unusual power, and wrought a range of sounds from a classical orchestra that were probably unthinkable before the work's 1813 premiere. Like the Stravinsky quartets, it came across as music that wanted to burst out of its own skin.

And then, the next night, the Orchestra of the 18th Century gave a performance with period instruments of a late Haydn symphony, No 99. Conductor Kenneth Montgomery directed a delectable performance, sharply etched, attentive to fine detail, responsive in its wit and tenderness. But, by contrast with the previous night's Beethoven, the music felt bound by decorum. The two works are separated by less than 20 years, and also by what felt last weekend like a whole musical universe.

The highlight of the Dutch orchestra’s programme was Finghin Collins’s account of John Field’s First Piano Concerto. It’s a musically naive piece, but full of fanciful decoration, which Collins, playing an 1822 Broadwood instrument, treated with the utmost finesse. Music, instrument and player seemed in perfect concord.

The contributions of the Dutch mezzo soprano Rosanne van Sandwijk in Mozart (the concert aria Ch'io mi Scordi di te?) and Handel (Scherza Infida) were clear and true. And Montgomery and his players had a ball of a time in one of the 18th-century's great sonic spectacles, Handel's Fireworks Music.