Hibernian Orchestra Fabled Witches and Bewitching Fables at National Concert Hall, 29th March 2017
What better way to beat the mid-week blues than to immerse yourself in a world of fantasy and intrigue? The Hibernian Orchestra, under the skillful direction of John Finucane, return to the National Concert Hall to present a programme that does just that: an evening of marvelous musical tales that transport us to times long ago, and lands far away. Tonight’s programme, entitled Fabled Witches and Bewitching Fables, presents a selection of works inspired by or encapsulating the spirit of magic in folklore and fairytale.
The adventure begins with Lyadov’s Baba-Yaga, for what figure captures the imagination more than that of the witch, and a particularly terrifying one at that? A dramatic opening, the piece embodies the iron-toothed, child-gobbling hag of Russian myth, and exploits a series of musical conventions to build a sense of suspense that has the audience—figuratively speaking—on their toes. Contrasting high and low pitches in repeated brass notes and mixing tremolo and staccato string playing, the Hibernian Orchestra show themselves to be in energetic form this evening.
Finucane’s conducting exemplifies a practiced hand—at times almost metronomic, his style is restrained and avoids any semblance of melodrama. Although seemingly at odds with the content of tonight’s programme, his understated gestures prove to be an effective form of direction—Finucane appears wholly in control of his performers and the lavish sounds they produce.
Cellist Killian White joins the orchestra for a rendition of Dvorak’s cello concerto, and shows himself to be the master of not-inconsiderable talent. Although a change from the programmatic works performed this evening, the pentatonic colouration within the concerto has echoes of folk music about it, and allows audience’s imaginations roam free. White’s entry is a fiery counterpoint to the lyrical opening of the first movement; exploiting the buzzier timbres of his instrument, his playing adds a sense of youthful verve to the performance. After a more pastoral second movement—contrasted with darker orchestral sections—a sense of tension is re-established in the opening of the third. Dvorak’s exquisite cello writing is exemplified in a contrasting imitation between soloist and orchestra, with the cello section deftly handling heartbeat-like pizzicato passages to contrast White’s solo playing. White’s performance is more refined than in the first movement, but he relays the folk-tinged theme with great panache. Overall, the work captures the tensions and excitement that witches and folktales both elicit and detail, without adhering to a distinct set of images or narrative.
After a short intermission, we are lured into the exotic realm of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. The ominous opening echoes the sense of menace wrought by the Baba-Yaga in the first half of the concert, but is offset by violinist Orla Ní Bhraoin’s solo renderings of the eponymous character. The work, intended by Rimsky-Korsakov to present the audience with ‘a kaleidoscope of fairytale images’, is based on the tales of Scheherazade. Present in the form of a violin melody, Scheherazade—and by extension Ní Bhraoin—is our anchor, as we cross the seas with Sinbad, observe the dances of dervishes and the festival at Baghdad through Rimsky-Korsakov’s music. Although at times ominous—the rolling of the first movement at times threatens to capsize—the work has a distinct sense of whimsy. The work employs great timbral variety in the creation of fantasy soundscapes, from ticking pizzicato violins, to rolling harp arpeggios, to light-hearted clarinet and snare pairings. The finale sees the Hibernian Orchestra at their most dramatic, with militant drumming, triumphant cymbal clashes, and triangle rolls over swelling fanfares giving way to an almost choral orchestral finish, with the Scheherazade theme disintegrating into ethereal high harmonics.
Like the Sultan in the tale of Scheherazade, we are left, not dissatisfied, but curious as to what fabulous tales the Hibernian Orchestra will tell us next. But alas, no programme can last for 1001 nights. Fabled Witches and Bewitching Fables bids farewell to the mundane, and is—to use a fitting term—quite charming.
Anatoly Lyadov – Baba-Yaga, Op. 56
Antonin Dvorak – Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov – Scheherazade, Op. 35