John F. Larchet, conductor, composer, and teacher, was a major figure in Dublin’s musical life over much of the 20th century. Aged just 23, he became the Abbey Theatre’s musical director in 1907, shortly after its founding, and remained there to 1934. In the 1920s he became professor of music at University College Dublin (a post he held for nearly 40 years), and among other roles became musical advisor to the newly-formed Irish Army, principal music examiner for secondary schools across the country, and later the first president of the Dublin Grand Opera Society. Larchet was a passionate educator and worked hard to develop home-grown music in Ireland, but for most people he is now, at best, only a name.
This new recording, bringing the complete songs together for the first time, as well as the Irish Airs for violin and piano, is long overdue. Simply arranged in chronological order, the material takes us on a journey through Larchet’s writing, at the same time opening a new window into the culture of his period. The opening songs reflect Larchet’s position as a young composer in pre-war Dublin, adopting the English parlour-song style to great effect, before later devoting himself to setting the work of Irish poets and absorbing the tonal language of traditional music. For pianist Niall Kinsella this project has been a labour of love, having personally gathered this material – much of it long out of print – through his own research. Here he is well-supported by fellow artists Raphaela Mangan (mezzo-soprano), Gavan Ring (baritone), Mia Cooper (violin) and Verity Simmons (cello), bringing this music vividly to life.
Picking out highlights is not easy, as part of the power of this collection is cumulative: one track builds on another, and song speaks to song. For example, the three Padric Gregory settings (Padraic the Fiddiler; An Ardglass Boat Song; A stóirin bán), composed over a decade into his career at the Abbey, show Larchet’s sure sense of musical drama. Gavan Ring, joined by Mia Cooper for Padraic the Fiddiler, brings a sensitive poise to this song, clearly relishing the bardic wit and the poet’s words. As a foil to this, An Ardglass Boat Song is like Synge’s ‘Riders to the Sea’ in miniature, starkly concentrated. It is sung beautifully here by Raphaela Mangan, her warm voice a match for the song’s dark setting, and as well she brings a mournful clarity to the strange lullaby that is A stóirin bán. As well as their obvious affection for this material, Ring and Mangan offer insightful singing and a sure sense of character to every song on this album – it’s hard not to be swept up by it.
Alongside these songs are Larchet’s two sets of Irish Airs for violin and piano, played by Mia Cooper and Niall Kinsella. Performances at the Abbey Theatre a century ago happened differently from what one might expect now, more often like variety shows, with a mix of one- and two-act plays. Music for – and between – the plays was provided by the theatre orchestra, which Larchet conducted. His airs for solo violin and piano, like those of his teacher Michele Esposito before him, are subtle and attractive arrangements of popular folk tunes and dances, mostly composed for specific plays and then revived as interval pieces. Hearing these gives us a rare chance to imagine something of the sound of the Abbey of this time, and Cooper brings a rich array of colours to contrast each air, turning smartly from lush sentimentality to soft introspection and then off to the brisk slap of a fresh dance.
This sense of Larchet’s theatrical work is deepened with songs from ‘The Land of Heart’s Desire’ by W.B. Yeats and Micheál Mac Liammóir’s ‘The Ford of the Hurdles’, as well as the dry wit of Francis Fahy’s poem The Thief of the World, but arguably this collection reserves its best music for the closing tracks. These late songs show Larchet still developing and exploring his voice. The harmonic language, informed by his deep attention to traditional music, takes on a dark nostalgia that suggests even a glance westwards to American modernism.
After the rich pathos of Raphaela Mangan’s singing of Wee Hughie, Gavan Ring delivers a powerful performance of Larchet’s last song, a setting of Donal O’Sullivan’s The Small Black Rose. Then, to close, Mangan completes the set with a reprise of Padraic the Fiddiler in the version for voice and piano only, offering a fine reading of her own, as ever ably accompanied by Kinsella.
Beautifully sung and played, this is music to be enjoyed, in an album that reclaims an abandoned chapter of both music and theatre history. Hopefully this project will inspire further re-evaluation of John Larchet’s wider achievement as a composer. Sensitively recorded and produced, with an excellent programme essay by Andrew Stewart, this is a recording well worth seeking out and sharing.