Reviewed today are the NCC/Antunes at the National Gallery, Dublin, Atso Almila with the NYOI at the NCH, Dublin and the Ulster Orchestra/Vladimir Altschuler at the Ulster Hall, Belfast
National Gallery, Dublin
The closing concert of the National Chamber Choir's Travels in Europe series was given under artistic director Celso Antunes. England and Italy featured in a programme that framed works by 20th-century composers, with pieces by Byrd and Monteverdi.
The concert included two premières, the first, remarkably, of a movement from Michael Tippett's Four Songs from the British Isles. Tippett wrote this work for a German choir in 1956, and the setting of Over the Sea to Skye, which he rejected for the finished piece, lay forgotten in the archive of his publisher, Schott, until after the composer's death in 1998.
Antunes handled all of these pieces with unusual refinement. Here Tippett uses sophisticated technique to produce results of agreeable directness.
Antunes encouraged a cool, caressing manner for the opening of Early One Morning, secured an almost instrumental freedom of agitation in Lilliburlero, and made the most of the lilt of Over the Sea to Skye, bringing a sense of real enchantment.
HE by John Palmer (born 1959) was written in 1992 on the death of John Cage, and calls for just eight voices, spatially distributed and making much use of the technique of overtone singing so that they emerge as delicate, almost ethereal, whistling sounds.
The composer's strategy in this textless piece was clear, but the result was patchy, as if not all the effects of the experiment had triggered.
The opening excerpts from Byrd's Cantiones Sacrae and Gradualia sounded as if the choir hadn't fully warmed up, and the closing madrigals from Monteverdi's Fourth Book gave the impression that Antunes had gone to the other extreme, overheating as he employed colours that seemed more than a shade too bright, and sought effects that seemed too extreme.
But, as is his trademark, the styles of the different composers were all clearly delineated, and the character of each individual piece thoroughly worked out.
The remaining 20th-century music was by Luigi Dallapiccola, the Due Cori di Michelangelo Buonarroti il Giovane of 1933, light, madrigalian pieces, quite distinct from the politically-motivated works that were to follow within a few years. The choir's performance married elegance and force.
Atso Almila, NYOI
Carnavalesque - Philip Hammond, Romeo and Juliet Suite No 2 - Prokofiev, Symphony No 5. Finlandia - Sibelius
Atso Almila, who conducted the National Youth Orchestra of Ireland's recent four-concert tour, is not only a conductor but a composer with a wide and diverse output.
Although Almila is himself a trombone player and has written widely for wind instruments, it was the string section of the NYOI which gave the best account of itself in the closing concert of the tour.
The concert opened with Philip Hammond's specially-commissioned Carnavalesque, a title which the composer relates to "the sort of things which I think young people should enjoy when they are young - revelry and entertainment for its own sake, with a hint of competition, parody, abandon, and a brief freedom from the strictures of a society.... "
The piece, which is written for double orchestra, sets out its stall early, with the orchestras left and right linked through the driving force of the percussion section.
The various technical challenges for the players may have made for an enlivening playing experience, but for the listener the recursiveness and repetitiveness of the patterning quickly created a rut out of which the music never really managed to raise itself.
Almila's approach to the second of the suites Prokofiev fashioned from the music for his ballet Romeo and Juliet was focused and straight but offered little subtlety.
He painted the grander moments of Sibelius's Fifth Symphony with confident skill, but the nature of the wind detailing suggested that Sibelius's manner in this work is not one that all of the players felt comfortable with.
The inclusion of Finlandia might have been expected to make this already full programme seem over-long. But the outcome was the opposite. Here was a work which both conductor and players enjoyed getting their teeth into, and the rousing performance offered the finest music-making of the evening.
Ulster Orchestra/Vladimir Altschuler
Ulster Hall, Belfast
Glinka - Overture 'A Life for the Tsar'. Liadov - Eight Russian Folk Songs Op 58. Glazunov - Violin Concerto.
Tchaikovsky - Suite No 3 in G Op 55.
Glinka's Overture to A Life for the Tsar is an apt opening for concerts devoted to Russian music. It was after all with Glinka that the Russian national style developed. Vladimir Altschuler, raised in St Peterburg, approaches this music as an insider, and there was no doubting his attention to detail.
If the overture could also have been somewhat more spirited, Altschuler's careful approach was just right for Liadov's orchestral Folk Song settings, delicate, rather wan pieces in which the composer seems afraid of making too much of the material, and for Glazunov's Violin Concerto, a work which veers between the elegiac and the academic. Sergey Dogadin, a promising 15-year-old, played with a pleasantly mellow tone in the lower register.
Tchaikovsky's Third Suite rivals his symphonies for length, if not depth.
The middle movements, a Valse mélancolique and a quicksilver scherzo, are not among the composer's most memorable inspirations, and the final set of variations only comes to life in its later stages. At the same time, the sometimes fussy detail creates as much work for conductor and orchestra as a proper symphony.
Altschuler's attention to nuance paid off in the opening Élégie, and the final variations included a fine violin solo from leader Lesley Hatfield.