Kirkoskammer: The String Quartet at Bewley’s Café Theatre @ Powerscourt, Dublin, on 18 March 2017

The Kirkoskammer series is an initiative by Kirkos, offering concerts of 20th-century and contemporary works from Ireland and abroad. Launched in December, the series has already had two concerts, devoted to the piano and the flute respectively. Performances take place in the Bewley’s Café Theatre upstairs in the Powerscourt Centre—a small space, with the seating arranged cabaret-style around candle-lit tables facing the stage. Kirkos makes a feature of creating ambiance, and so the lights are kept low. Tonight is the turn of that most venerable of chamber combinations, the string quartet. Joining Kirkos stalwarts Sebastian Adams (viola) and Yseult Cooper Stockdale (cello) are violinists Siobhán Doyle and Siún Miller, in a programme that joins one of the classic scores of the Second Viennese School with music much closer to our own time.

Anton Webern’s music is rarely heard outside of musicology lectures these days, so it is a rare pleasure to encounter his Five Movements for String Quartet, Op. 5 in concert. An unprecedented shock for the audiences of 1909, these compact movements still sound as fresh as ever. Aided by the immediacy of the acoustic, the ensemble brings an arresting and vivid sound to this work. The players form a good rapport, clearly relishing the spare and elegant textures of the piece, and beautifully project the passing moments of impulsive force and fleeting lyricism.

Webern’s project of exploring new textures and soundworlds continues in the pieces that follow. The title of Seán ó Dálaigh’s work (pul)s(a)tring quart(ion(echo)s)et playfully embeds ‘pulsations’ and ‘echo’ within ‘string quartet’. The work itself explores the nature of sound and audibility within the physicality of the string quartet, beginning with all the instruments playing in delicate harmonic registers. Building from a point of gentle concentration, there is a gradual expansion of sound as the work progresses, the music gathering at momentary gestures and points of departure.

This is followed by a Kirkos commission, Beyond a Shadowed Sky by Breffni O’Byrne. Sustained notes and starkly transparent chords make way for moments of chorale-like homophony, recalling early hymns. Lyrical moments for solo cello and violin add a simple dignity, the effect focused and calmly eclectic.

The standout work in the programme, however, is kept till last. This is the Irish premiere of the String Quartet No. 2 (1998) by Austrian composer Georg Friedrich Haas. His musical style recalls that of Ligeti and others, and demands much of the players, here creating an aural texture that operates like a kind of sonic energy field. Different resonances emerge, and at times individual timbres are drawn towards a visceral harshness, notably the cello. It is a deeply compelling work, given a committed performance tonight. Kirkoskammer continues on April 11 – seek it out.


Anton Webern: Five Movements for String Quartet, Op. 5

Seán ó Dálaigh: (pul)s(a)tring quart(ion(echo)s)et

Breffni O’Byrne: Beyond a Shadowed Sky

Georg Friedrich Haas: String Quartet No. 2 (1998)