Thursday 23 May 2019

Review: RTÉ National Symphony & Irish Chamber Orchestras

English Conductor Michael Francis
English Conductor Michael Francis

Pat O'Kelly

Following several weeks’ lull, the latest in the RTÉ NSO’s ‘Subscription Season’ finds the ensemble in top form under re-visiting English conductor Michael Francis

Increasingly well respected on both sides of the Atlantic, his programme spotlights Dvorák’s 7th Symphony. The Brahms-like majesty of its opening Allegro is lightened by some delicious woodwind writing and, through its inherent Bohemian flavour, this is music that smiles.

Dvorák’s ‘poco adagio’ slow movement has chorale-like fragments in its dignified expressiveness with a sentient oboe sighing a disturbingly poignant interlude.

The constant dynamic shifts of the heroic Scherzo are played with tremendous verve while Michael Francis’ spirited approach to the rousing Finale propels music and musicians, particularly the emblazoned horns, to a thrilling conclusion.

The rest of this concert puts Russian and American opposites Sergey Prokofiev and Samuel Barber shoulder to shoulder. One cocks a snook at Soviet officialdom while the other is more personally reflective.

Both performances have positive clarity with the satirical pomp and bombast of Prokofiev’s ‘Lieutenant Kije Suite’ the more colourfully brash. Barber’s setting of James Agee’s poetic memoir ‘Knoxville: Summer 1915’ projects a gentle innocence very sensitively interpreted by soprano Anna Devin.

Ms Devin captures the childlike atmosphere of the piece beautifully and copes effortlessly with Barber’s undulating lines.

The Irish Chamber Orchestra also returns to the NCH after a lengthy absence.

Its programme has familiar Mendelssohn at either end with novelty fillings in between.

These bring the rarities of Max Bruch’s Concerto for Clarinet and Viola — exquisitely etched by Jörg Widmann and Tabea Zimmermann — and Widmann’s relatively recent 4th String Quartet.

Widmann’s short Quartet, with ICO principals led unassailably by Katherine Hunka, calls on pizzicato extremes, flaying the air with their bows and suggestive heavy breathing from the musicians.

However, the end result is quite engaging, with argumentative discourse contrasted by amusing gallimaufry.

In the Mendelssohn — ‘Hebrides’ Overture and Scottish Symphony — the orchestra is solidly steadfast under the ubiquitous Widmann’s sharply trenchant control.

Rewarding events on all fronts.

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