National Concert Hall prizes for flautist Galway and soprano Davis

The überflautist took the lifetime achievement award, while the soprano landed the Bernadette Greevy Bursary


The National Concert Hall recently honoured two Irish musicians at opposite ends of their careers. Überflautist James Galway became the second recipient of the NCH’s annual Lifetime Achievement Award, of which last year’s inaugural laureates were Paddy Moloney and The Chieftains; and it was announced that rising soprano Jennifer Davis had seen off stiff competition for the fourth Bernadette Greevy Bursary. Having appeared with the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra in July, Davis makes her Wexford Festival Opera debut this month with the lead role of Adina in Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore.

The bursary comes hitched to an evening solo recital at the NCH, which mezzo-soprano Rachel Kelly, the 2012 winner, delivered last Wednesday with accompanist Matthew Fletcher at the piano. In a chiefly late-romantic programme, Kelly tackled the statuesque declamations of Debussy’s Chansons de Bilitis and Richard Strauss’s Vier Lieder Op 27 with more zest and sparkle than actual communicativeness, and reeled off a string of Irish folksong arrangements by Herbert Hughes with seemingly inexhaustible athleticism.

It was in arias from operas by Handel (Ariodante) and Vivaldi (Bajazet), where the music took care of the prosody rather than vice versa, that Kelly’s fine technique and assertive musicianship were at their most impressive.

Friday evening’s playing by the RTÉ NSO under Austrian conductor Christian Arming combined a high feel-good factor with some reckless tonal balances. The latter spelled danger, especially in the elusively innocent finale of Mahler’s Symphony No 4, where the child-like and cheerful contributions of soprano soloist Mary Nelson were for the most part veiled by an accompaniment persistently louder than the required pianissimo. There was some reluctance, too, for the violins to indulge in the composer’s directions to glide between notes, a period detail essential to the melting effects of the Poco adagio. Rather, Arming’s architectonic approach had its happiest results in the first movement, where each give and take in the tempo brought its own injection of pure charm.

Again in terms of instrumental balance, the revised version of Britten’s back catalogue Piano Concerto of 1938/1945 proved a sometimes unequal battleground for soloist Barry Douglas. True, there are openings in the heavy scoring through which Douglas could register a thoroughly apposite equilibrium of muscle and refinement. But the fact remained that this concerto contains too many reminiscences of other, more successful ones from the inter-war years, such as those of Ravel (in G) and Prokofiev (No 3).

Fortunately there was an opportunity to savour Douglas’s playing unalloyed in a late-evening programme of character pieces from Brahms’s Opp 10 and 117-19 sets. This was a rare realisation of music as intensely pianistic as piano music gets, in which nothing was purely decorative, everything substantive, and every last note seemed to make its own persuasive point.

Concorde at the Hugh Lane
Jane O’Leary’s venerable new-music ensemble Concorde, now just three years from its 40th anniversary season, presented at the Hugh Lane Gallery a mini-retrospective of works by Irish or Irish-resident composers it had premiered in the first four months of this year. Con permiso Litoral, by Ariel Hernandez, was the most accessible item, placing a trio of violin (Elaine Clark), accordion (Dermot Dunne) and cello (Adrian Mantu) at the service of folk dances from the composer’s homeland of Argentina. Though there are no tangos as such, this six-movement suite might be characterised as a successful rustic take on the addictive idioms of Piazzolla.

In a brief programme note about her own composition Buttons, Breath, Bow (the title reflects the scoring for accordion, clarinet and violin), Deirdre McKay put her finger on an issue relevant to the other works on the programme. “What is confrontational about music,” she wrote, “is that it is abstract.” In fact, her decision to abstain from an extra-musical agenda of the kind that’s almost mandatory in contemporary music made her piece all the more inviting: the literal title meant one could listen without preconceptions.

Not so with Judith Ring’s Swelt Belly at Dawn or O’Leary’s A Way Through, of which one was explained as “a musical representation of a sunrise” and the other was accompanied by a slide show depicting rural Ireland on a foggy morning. Introducing clarinet (Paul Roe) and alto flute (Madelaine Staunton), both pieces are resourceful trios with musical interest to spare. But the associations between sounds and images proved disappointingly elusive.

Auspicious beginnings
Two new concert series – the International Season Sunday Matinee concerts at the NCH, and the Dublin Song Series staged jointly with the Hugh Lane – could not have got off to a more distinguished combined start than in an all-too-rare home appearance by Dublin-born mezzo-soprano Ann Murray. With polished piano accompaniment from Dearbhla Collins, the solo portion of the recital took in sequences of selected songs by Purcell and Brahms, Britten’s A Charm of Lullabies Op 41, and Herbert Hughes’s patter song The Cork Leg.

The vocal interpretations were a lesson in how to hold an audience’s attention. The tone qualities ranged, often swiftly, from majestic éclat to barely audible intimacy, delighting the ear with constant spontaneity, yet always calculated to infuse the text with exactly the right measure of drama.

These songs would have been treats enough, yet Murray was joined by an octet of senior students from the Royal Irish Academy of Music for a ravishing account of Brahms’s Liebeslieder Walzer Op 52, the other half of the four-handed piano part being made up by Finghin Collins. The eight young voices – Margaret Bridge and Sarah Shine (sopranos), Heather Fogarty and Gemma Ní Bhriain (mezzo-sopranos), Andrew Gavin and Ciarán Kelly (tenors) and Seán Boylan and Rory Musgrave (baritones) – formed complementary pairs of remarkable balance and evenness. But special mention must be made of the performance’s one short solo, sung by Ní Bhriain with a distinction equal to the occasion.

Michael Dervan is on leave

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