Who was the best composer of the late 19th century?

That question was arguably answered in concerts at the National Concert Hall and University Church last week

One of the most striking aspects of the Irish Chamber Orchestra’s concert in the RDS last Thursday evening was the subtle way in which visual elements reinforced the experience of listening.

The ICO's playing has always tended more towards liveliness than polish; though the slow movement of Mozart's Symphony No 29 showed that they can be subtle and discreet. Haydn's Piano Concerto in D Hob XVIII:11 was played as a romp, which is what it is. The pianist Finghin Collins also played in the programme's second Stravinsky work (the first had been the Concerto in D), the Septet for Clarinet, Horn, Bassoon, Piano, Violin, Viola and Cello. It was disarming to hear Collins say, in off-the-cuff comments before the performance, that he had not yet decided if he liked it.

Not that you’d have guessed. This piece, written in 1952-3, takes the composer’s penchant for historical modelling to extremes. All the players dived into this gift to the musical know-it-all who, like this listener, loves to spot the model. Yet their infectious enthusiasm put the music’s historical and technical self-awareness where it should be – submerged.

Visual concepts were also to the fore in the recital given by the cellos of the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, before the main Friday-night concert at the National Concert Hall. It was fascinating to watch as well as hear how the players interacted with one another and with the superb solo playing of Daniel Müller-Schott in an arrangement of Haydn's Cello Concerto in C. This arrangement works well. However, my companion raised a fascinating question. How might we respond to the all-cello texture in a recording? Not as warmly, I suspect, as when hearing is leavened by seeing.


The main Friday concert was a winner. The American conductor James Feddeck and the RTÉ NSO were muscular and persuasive in Hindemith's once-popular, but now too-rarely-heard symphony Mathis der Maler and in Stauss's Der Rosenkavalier Suite. But the highlight of the evening came in the first half, when the Russian pianist Alexei Volodin was the soloist in Brahms's Second Piano Concerto.

I was astonished by the way in which Volodin combined Russian full-bloodedness with subtlety and deep-listening control of texture in this most-demanding, intellectually and virtuosically, of concertos. It was among the finest specimens of concerto-playing I have heard from the NSO, as the players and soloist made their parts integrate with one another, turn corners impeccably, and shade the discourse between parts. Volodin’s physical efforts were palpable but even stronger was the sense that magisterial mental and physical control were serving musical imagination and insight.

I wonder if, anywhere in the world, one could encounter choral singing more controlled, more technically polished, than what the audience in St Patrick's Cathedral heard on Saturday, from the English group The Sixteen under their founding conductor, Harry Christophers. Their performance of Monteverdi's 1610 Vespers confirmed their reputation as one of the top early music ensembles of our time. The most impressive moments came in the second half, especially when instrumental and vocal soloists had free rein to do their virtuosic thing around the long-note, sung or played plainchants.

A friend once described Harry Christophers as the Von Karajan of the early music world. It's a deep compliment. But it's also a reference to the fact that such consummate control and finesse can sieve the grit out of music – a curtailment that many have found especially in the great Austrian's later work. On this occasion some of the most astonishing music ever written was so impeccably polished that it became polite – apt more for a cheese-and-wine party than a robust feast.

Sunday's concert at the Hugh Lane Gallery, given by Concorde and the Con Tempo String Quartet, featured five works written within the last four years, three of them Irish. Throughout, I was struck by the authority of the playing, and among the pieces, especially by two completed this year, Linda Buckley's downward in a freezing earth for bass clarinet, violin, cello and electronics, and Ed Bennett's Static Tones and Sliding Drones for bass clarinet and string quartet.

No less authoritative was the young French group the Zaïde String Quartet, which is on a Music Network tour that will take them to Carrick-on-Shannon today, Waterford on Thursday, Cork on Friday and Birr on Saturday. Don't miss it.

Their playing of quartets by Shostakovich, Mozart, Philip Martin and Bartók is fresh, energetic and sensual.

But the high point of this Sunday feast of chamber music was the first in the Vanbrugh Quartet’s three-concert chamber series at the University Church, St Stephen’s Green, each devoted to a quartet by Mozart and a quartet-plus work by Brahms. On this occasion the Brahms was the String Quintet Op. 111.

The Vanbrugh, with Cian Ó Dúill as the additional viola, played this piece for all they were worth. It combines the finesse of domestic music with the intellectual and physical muscle of virtuoso concert music; and the players caught that full scope.

It could be beautifully polished, but because they were willing to take it to the edge, it was never polite. Add that to the concerto on Friday, and you feel that arguments about who was the best composer of the late 19th century were over. Brahms – no contest.

  • Michael Dervan is on leave