Reviews

 

Irish Timeswriters review a selection of events.

Alfred Brendel (piano)

NCH, Dublin

Haydn - Sonata in C minor Hob XVI: 20. Beethoven - Sonata in A flat Op 110. Schubert - Impromptus D935 Nos 1 and 3. Mozart - Sonata in C minor K475

Alfred Brendel is anything but a virtuoso in the conventional sense. Although he used to play quite a number of romantic warhorses, he's always been seen as something of an intellectual among pianists. Indeed, at this point in his career - at the age of 76 and having already shed the more overtly virtuosic pieces that were once in his repertoire - you might expect him to have become even more of an intellectual in performance.

The risk at a Brendel concert has long been that his playing may constitute more a revelation of his thinking about the music than an actual exposition of the music itself - the sheer depth of his thoughtfulness could get in the way of natural musical expression.

For this appearance he offered a tightly focused programme of the Viennese classics, sonatas by Haydn, Beethoven and Mozart (in that order), with the two longest of Schubert's Impromptus placed before the Mozart.

I heard him play this programme earlier this year at the Lobero Theater in Santa Barbara. It was a rather fraught evening. The acoustic made for a piano sound that was small in size and hard in tone, and the music-making was as if stripped bare; thoughtful, yes, but oh so dry. The effect of the same programme at the NCH was almost unrecognisable.

Brendel sounded to be in his comfort zone, thoughtful as ever, the music unfolding with a natural ebb and flow, the voicing and nuancing opening up levels of expression and sensuality that were effectively inoperative in the earlier performances. The Brendel intellect, of course, made its presence felt, not least in the juxtapositions of the actual programme. He placed the overt play of ideas, which can make Haydn seem one of the most pristinely musical of composers, before the almost fantastical and utterly personal extremes, to which Beethoven sought to drive the same kind of musical form. The two Impromptus showed the heartbreak and sweetness of Schubert in startlingly different balances. And there are ways in which Mozart's C minor Sonata prophesies elements of the musical world of Beethoven.

Brendel's pianistic mastery - and master is still what he is - was shown in a finely controlled complexity of texture and his astonishing richness of musical voicing. He has a skill not unlike that of a cameraman whose control of depth of field can keep absolutely everything in focus, no matter how challenging the disposition of elements. No significant detail ever seems masked or lost when Brendel is on this kind of form.

On any evening, even one of this quality, there can always be something which stands above the rest. Here, it was the Schubert, where it was as if Brendel disappeared, and you heard nothing but Schubert himself.

Michael Dervan

Fewer Emergencies

Project Cube

By the time 2007 is over, Martin Crimp will have proved the most popular playwright in Irish theatre: Fewer Emergencies is the third of his plays to be staged at Project this year (technically, it is also the fourth and fifth - the piece is a trilogy of short plays) while his translation of Roberto Zucco is right around the corner. For those still wondering why he strikes such a chord, Randolph SD's production edges us closer to an answer.

With its dialogue splintered between characters 1, 2, 3 and 4, its time and place both specified as "Blank", the play offers director Wayne Jordan less a blueprint than a blank cheque. Everything from design to delivery depends on the group's interpretation. But Jordan recognises that the blankness is as much social comment as authorial permissiveness: the world depicted in Fewer Emergencies is a bleached middle-class milieu of conspicuous affluence and discrete abuse, where suburban idylls hum with terror and horrific events go unexplained.

If the culture is suspect, so is the medium. Like Attempts on Her Life, no one onstage is a character, but everyone is a narrator. In the first sequence, Susannah de Wrixon, Ruth McGill and Ciarán O'Brien describe the sinking compromises of a woman in a loveless and abusive marriage. Moving around Jordan's attractively minimal set - an island of grass with a pretty little tree, best described as "box-garden pastoralism" - de Wrixon shadows the mother figure, the others her children, but life is always delivered in the third-person.

When Karl Quinn arrives for the second piece, a deliberately faltering account of a school shooting disturbingly similar to the Dunblane massacre, the theme stiffens into disassociation. His words are horrifyingly detached ("It's interesting to see the way that some of them hold hands") and Quinn plays the scene like an actor struggling for his cues. This is theatre that has learned to distrust the mediatisation of tragedy, but also, it seems, theatre that has come to distrust itself.

The effect, however, is to allow its unease to sink deeper, to make it linger longer. At one point the performers break into song, a pastiche of black music performed by white folks, and there is consolation in the harmonies - McGill's in particular. It is discord that Crimp is after, though, and as the third play warps into surreal menace, Sinéad Wallace's lights remain beautiful while Vincent Doherty and Ivan Birthistle's soundtrack echoes with encroaching threats. Challenging work, it is theatre for an anaesthetised age; bright as Benetton, tranquil as a Zen garden, unsettling as a muffled cry.

Peter Crawley

• Runs until Sept 1

This Dancing Life

SS Michael and John, Dublin

I've never walked out of a performance that I liked, but Sara Rudner's This Dancing Lifeis as much about not being there as being there. She doesn't really want audiences to sit through the four hours of dance ("you'll get the idea after an hour"), so the act of leaving - and returning later, if you like - is as important as content. This truncated viewing might have denied a single edifying insight from the algebra of almost 100 individual dances, but that is exactly what Rudner wants.

Her blessing to come and go (generally well-observed by the audience) is an act of subverting convention that is more effective than site-specific settings in galleries or rooftops. While throwing off theatrical constraints is one thing, using the newly found freedom is another, and Rudner's concept and realisation are in perfect balance. By fiddling with our perception of beginning, middle and conclusion, and highlighting dance as a time-based rather than decorative artform, she focuses on what is happening right now in front of us: dancers are dancing.

It's a simple statement, reinforced with spoken cues and casual benches in the shared wooden-floored performing area, which together lend overtones of an open rehearsal. The gratifying movement that she constructs for the 20 performers from her New York-based company and Irish Modern Dance Theatre is ever-changing in tone, rhythm and physicality, and enriched by the contrapuntal possibilities such a large cast offers. A rattlebag of instruments and appropriate use of silence by musicians William Catanzaro and Jerome Morris add subtle colour, while designer Eric Wurtz's minuscule changes to the natural light are like clouds passing overhead.

A four-hour work such as This Dancing Lifecould be either stretch Hummer or hair-shirt, but Rudner is neither showing off or being virtuous.

Through her own dancing life she has learned that it is the live dancer, rather than the abstract concept, that is the real source of strength for the artform. Somewhere, right now, a dancer is dancing, and, for her, that makes this world a better place.

Michael Seaver