Isabelle O'Connell, Irish Pianist, Ireland, New York, Classical ContemporaryIsabelle O’Connell in the Kevin Barry Room, NCH, Saturday 19th April.

Isabelle O’Connell is one of those near-mythical pianists who gravitates towards the impossible, the extreme and the repetitive. In other words, she is a gift to any living composer given the chance to write for her.

Her concert in the Kevin Barry Room in the National Concert Hall as part of the AIC’s Irish Canon series took in the whole of the very broad spectrum of Irish contemporary music, beginning with a Chaconne by Siobhán Cleary. Cleary comes from the school of Irish composers who revel in simplicity and in a stripped down version of tonality which has its roots in pop music as much as in the classical tradition. Cleary uses a very meditative chord progression for her ground (a chaconne being a set of variations on a ground bass), chosen for possessing a lack of tension. The work’s strengths and weaknesses both lie in this factor. As the piece progresses the surface activity moves gradually becomes more frenetic, through the use of pseudo-baroque ornamentation. This passagework is a little rudderless when divorced from the tonal tension it would rely on in its original context. On the other hand, the stiller portions of the piece are really very beautiful and are played fabulously by O’Connell.

Peter Moran’s collection of twenty-two Dublin Miniatures is a low point. Moran eschews any kind of attempt to create tiny but fully formed pieces, choosing instead to present nearly two-dozen little fragments of ideas. The fact that the vast majority of the ideas are totally devoid of charm, attractiveness or wit renders the project a frustrating experience for the listener.

The highlight comes next, taking a totally different approach to Moran’s. Andrew Hamilton’s intriguingly named O.I.A.R. (short for ‘only action is refined’) is a twenty-minute epic based entirely on a single perfect cadence repeating over and again. Guaranteed to divide the audience beyond repair within the first minute, this is surely one of the most audacious pieces ever written by an Irish composer. Hamilton’s extraordinary genius lies in the clash between obsessively single-minded repetition (and gradual variation) and a schizophrenic, skittish tendency. Although his music is always on the extreme end of repetitive he keeps the listener not just on the edge of their seat but practically in mid-air by maintaining an extraordinary sense of unpredictability. This all comes back to tension again, and it is a Wagnerian command of long-term tension that makes Hamilton’s music far more satisfying than the music of David Lang and Michael Gordon et al which influences so many Irish composers. Hamilton has gone on record as a Wagner listener, and it is tempting to assume that the idea of making an entire piece out of a perfect cadence is a response to Wagner’s attempts to do the opposite.

Two competent pieces by Jane O’Leary and Donnacha Dennehy bring things to a close. Dennehy’s Stainless Staining is a post-minimalist moto perpetuo for piano and tape. It is very much put in the shade by Hamilton’s work, seeming to lack an audible trajectory.

O’Connell’s playing is magnificent, and extraordinarily accurate, but this concert relies heavily on the brilliant Hamilton piece to prop it up.


Siobhán Cleary – Chaconne
Peter Moran – Dublin Miniatures
Andrew Hamilton – O.A.I.R
Jane O’Leary – Five Bagatelles
Donnacha Dennehy – Stainless Staining