Irish Composers’ Collective present ‘The Strung Series’, Concert 2, at The Octagon Room, Irish Georgian Society, 24 March 2015

The Irish Composers’ Collective continues ‘the strung series’ tonight with a concert given by Baroque violinist Claire Duff. This series showcases different traditions of violin playing and ironically tonight’s offering, nominally the earliest style, is in some ways the most recent.

A product of the 20th-century interest in historically-informed performance practice, the process of recreating an effective playing style for the Baroque violin was a journey of discovery for the ‘first’ generation of players in the 1970s, and it remains just outside the mainstream. Lighter than its modern descendent and boasting greater agility and clarity of tone (thanks partly to the restrained use of vibrato), it’s not surprising that like other ‘early’ instruments the Baroque violin now attracts the interest of new composers.

The sense of postmodern irony surrounding this old-yet-new instrument was beautifully captured in the opening piece of the concert, Eoghan Desmond’s Lost Hope Suite. Organised in the manner of a Baroque dance suite as a series of short, characterful movements, it is a piece haunted by the past, with distanced pastiches of Bach and other composers. Highly theatrical – the sole programme note is a ‘heard melodies’ reference from a scene in Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell – Duff’s performance if anything underlines the poised formality of the piece. She follows this with music from Bach’s Sonata No. 1 in G minor, which is beautifully articulated: taut, elegant and free-flowing, her playing brings out the light, improvisatory nature of the opening movement in particular. By contrast, Ben McHugh’s The Forest explores a stilled and pared-back aesthetic, with scattered and abbreviated gestures creating a soundscape that is as much about silence as sound.

McHugh’s sonic palette takes in not only the sounds of the instrument but also the player, who makes hissing or sshh noises, and later hums and sings sustained notes, whilst holding her line with the bow, creating simple chords. The Telemann Fantasia in B-flat that follows shows the Baroque violin to its best advantage, with its range of colour and tempo, the brilliance of the faster passages played with stylish clarity. Duff brings the first half to a close with a work commissioned by her in 2013, hang on, I’m not ready for a pig yet, by Karen Power. This work for violin and tape explores gesture and resonance, with the figure of a trill stretched and distorted to create an ambient field of shifting overtones.

The programme’s second half explores approaches to the form of theme and variations. Hugh Boyle’s colour coded cold carbon contents takes a fragmentary approach to the idea of a theme, but despite – or possibly due to – this, the piece strangely recalls mid 20th-century neo-classicism, with its formal attention to detail and surface texture. Seán Doherty’s Divisions brings the concert to a virtuoso finish, with its rapid-fire closing section. Between these last two new pieces, Duff introduces the earliest piece in the programme, the ‘Passacaglia’ from Biber’s Mystery Sonatas, an outstanding and inspiring work which she plays to mesmerising effect.


Eoghan Desmond: Lost Hope Suite

Johann Sebastian Bach: Sonata No. 1 in G minor, BWV 1001

Ben McHugh: The Forest

Georg Philipp Telemann: Fantasia in B-flat major, TWV 40:14

Karen Power: hang on, I’m not ready for a pig yet (2013)

Hugh Boyle: colour copied cold carbon contents

Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber: ‘Passacaglia’ from the Mystery Sonatas (c.1676)

Seán Doherty: Divisions


Claire Duff, Baroque violin