The Irish Timesexamines the arts
Handel – Concerto Grosso in A Op 6 No 11.
John Kinsella – Prelude and Toccata.
Mendelssohn – String Symphony No 12. Schumann – Cello Concerto (arr for violin and strings). Handel – Water Music (exc).
The Irish Chamber Orchestra’s artistic director, Anthony Marwood, continued his love-affair with arrangements by including a violin version of Schumann’s Cello Concertoin his latest tour.
Schumann never got to hear a public performance of the concerto. This wasn’t for the want of effort. He tried drumming up interest with various cellists. He proposed an arrangement for cello and string quartet to his publisher. He prepared a violin version for Joseph Joachim, which the great violinist quietly put aside, and which then lay in obscurity until it was rediscovered, published, and performed in the 1980s.
Marwood’s ICO performance was of a version by Orlando Jopling, which reduces the full orchestra to strings only, incidentally going against the grain of a re-orchestration carried out by Shostakovich for Rostropovich, which slightly adds to the size of the orchestra.
The concerto is an admittedly problematic piece, and Marwood showed all the agility needed to take full advantage of the extra mobility that the violin can provide over the cello. However, in the end, the losses were far greater than the gains. Yes, the cello can sometimes sound a little elephantine in this work, but it has a much wider range (the violin doesn’t really have anything to compare with the cello’s low register) and a far greater palette of colour.
Simply put, the violin version lacks an essential variety that the cello originally so effortlessly provides. And with a strings-only accompaniment, the monochrome effect was heightened even further. The focus shifted from the music to the performer, with virtuoso fiddling becoming the centre of attention. And given Schumann’s polemics about virtuosity, that’s surely the last thing he would have wanted.
The Schumann and the rest of the evening’s offerings were delivered with the ICO’s customary polish. The Handel concerto grosso and the youthful Mendelssohn string symphony were done with bracing energy.
And John Kinsella’s Prelude and Toccata(an arrangement from a string quartet that was premiered in 2007) worked up to an orchestrally sharp demonstration of Mendelssohnian lightness.
The greatest feeling of substance came from the closing performance of a suite (not played in the order suggested by the programme) from Handel’s Water Music, where both playing and music demonstrated real esprit and power.
Like so many Irish artists, David Kitt has experienced the ups and downs of a music career here – the confidence-draining label difficulties, the fickle nature of fleeting acclaim, the harsh criticism of his musical missteps.
Unlike so many Irish artists, however, he appears to have come back much the stronger for it, and this show proved beyond doubt that his is a career gloriously revived.
The gig was part of a nationwide tour to promote the release of his new album, The Nightsaver, which is Kitt’s most accomplished work since his first releases at the start of the decade, Small Moments and The Big Romance.
Those early recordings were easy to fall in love with, deceptively simple folk songs with laptop beats augmenting sweetly plucked guitar strings and hushed vocals. Nearly a decade later, Kitt has kept his songwriting sensibility, but the laptop beats are more insistent, the 1980s synth-pop homage more pronounced. Fittingly, he was wearing a blue suit that evoked Robert Palmer in his mid-1980s pomp. A brilliant reinvention of You Know What I Want to Know, closer to a dance anthem than a folk classic, indicated the fruitful direction Kitt has taken with his sound, and it was far from the only moment of Stereolab-styled experimentation to get the crowd jumping.
One of the gig’s standout moments was a spine-tingling cover of Womack and Womack’s Teardrops, that synth-drenched 1980s classic about footsteps on the dance floor, but ironically Kitt played it mostly acoustic on his guitar, stripped down to a lament about love lost, before adding some beats and upping the pace. “I find myself welling up with this song,” he interrupted at one point, but his beaming smile told a different story.
The crowd was noticeably chatty, even for Whelan’s, but few performers thrive quite so evidently from the positive reaction of a crowd as Kitt.
His shows can be charmingly shambolic on occasion, but when he makes that precious connection with an audience, as he did with this show, then he justifies the claim that he is one of our most talented, inventive songwriters.
Grimal, RTÉ NSO/Karabits
Haydn – Symphony No 96 (Miracle). Mendelssohn – Violin Concerto.
Dvorak – Symphony No 7.
The RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra’s ongoing series of Haydn symphonies, marking the bicentenary of the composer’s death, brings two quotations to mind.
It was Haydn himself who explained to an early biographer, Georg August Griesinger, that working in isolation for his noble masters had its positive side. “I was cut off from the world. No one around me could have doubts about me or torment me, and I was forced to become original.” Yet, barely more than 30 years after Haydn’s death, Schumann would declare him to be “like a familiar friend of the house who is always greeted with pleasure and respect, but is of no further interest for the present day”.
The NSO performances have tended to show the old friend attitude rather than seek out the composer’s freshness and originality.
Ukrainian conductor Kirill Karabits, making his Dublin debut here, set an unconvincingly in-between tempo for the slow introduction to Haydn’s Miracle Symphony. And, even after he’d settled in, he didn’t often manage to find sufficient clarity in louder passages.
The pleasures of his reading came in the velvety lightness of the violin lines in quieter moments, and the Haydnesque good humour he brought to the finale.
French violinist David Grimal was the soloist in Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto. He played with a kind of casual sophistication. His tone was always attractive, and he negotiated the trickiest passages with ease.
He seemed to have all the elements to make the most elegant and polished of statements about this evergreen piece, but was slightly let down by some wayward intonation and a tendency to rush when no rushing was called for.
Karabits, who becomes principal conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in September, provided a routine backing in the Mendelssohn.
But it wound up a couple of gears for the closing work, Dvorak’s Seventh and arguably finest symphony.
Karabits gave a performance with dark fire in its belly. Sometimes, as in the finale, the biting cut and thrust was carried through with a momentum that compromised moments of lyricism. But the abiding impression was of the persuasive and passionate urgency of the delivery.
Soloists, Guinness Choir and Orchestra/Milne
St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin
Handel – Solomon
Solomon, composed in 1748, came about seven oratorios after Messiah and fourth from the end. In three, unstaged acts it gives a portrait chiefly of the Old Testament figure of King Solomon but also of the Golden Age over which he presided.
Aside from the central Act II episode – the famous story of how Solomon proposes cutting a baby in half to resolve a maternity dispute – there is little external drama or narrative. So as a piece of music it is concerned with pomp and pageantry, rejoicing and adulation. Handel specialist Winton Dean argues that Handel intended – and his audiences appreciated – a deliberate analogy with England’s reigning sovereign of the time, George II.
So how exactly are we to take 2½ hours of empire, prosperity and monarchy here in our recession-battered republic? Easy – it’s Handel in top gear.
Crowning the Guinness Choir’s welcome presentation of a great oratorio that has been sidelined by the perennial popularity of Messiahwas mezzo-soprano Alison Browner. She sang the central “trouser role” of Solomon with default settings of an exquisite calibre, her invisible multitasking making every note beautiful while investing each word with meaning.
There were fine offerings from soprano Olive Simpson as the Queen of Sheba, her ease and sweetness growing the higher the register, and from bass John Milne, noble but unmannered as the priestly Levite. Tenor Christopher Brown and soprano Róisín O’Grady were polished, clear and stylish in their solos, with O’Grady bringing an additional element of drama as one of the maternity-case mothers.
Interestingly, the other mother was sung with great dynamism and musical shaping by soprano Nicola Mahoney, but with a vocal colour laced with timbres from a wholly different style of singing, perhaps jazz or pop.
Overseeing all the pomp and emotion was conductor David Milne who, though his strings couldn’t always deliver perfect cohesion, drew from his players great animation and character, yielding more than the sum of their parts.
Likewise the Guinness Choir itself, while losing definition and energy to weak consonants, gave Milne all the character he sought, above all in the great choruses of celebration.