The RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra with the RTÉ Philharmonic Choir, Imelda Drumm and Hugh Tinney at the National Concert, 9 January 2015

The RTÉ Philharmonic Choir celebrates thirty years with a performance of Elgar’s cantata The Music Makers, along with a new work by Northern Irish composer Elaine Agnew. Agnew’s Everyone Sang, a setting of a poem by Siegfried Sassoon, seems to sit well with the choir, a key advantage which allows them to focus on expressing the meaning of the music instead of attempting to sing the unsingable. The performance is excellent from both choir and orchestra, highly polished and without any of the sense of excruciating boredom that both ensembles sometimes approach contemporary  music. This may be partly because the work is gratifying to play and sing. The work is a triumph, easily accessible but not ‘dumbed down’, and has a lot of gently beautiful moments.

The choir leave the stage for the rest of the first half, and pianist Hugh Tinney joins conductor Andrew Litton and the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra for one of Mozart’s greatest masterpieces, the Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor. This performance is sadly lacking in fire and brimstone (this work inhabits the same dark D minor world as Mozart’s Requiem and Don Giovanni), taking a slightly ponderous approach to the first two movements. The orchestra’s sound is a little heavy, a little too sentimental, and suggests that Litton is a conductor more at home with later repertoire. Hugh Tinney does not sound at his superlative best, with his playing seeming slightly out of breath.

The choir return for Elgar’s The Music Makers to provide a magnificent performance of a very intriguing piece. The piece pulls together quotations from some of Elgar’s most famous works (notably the ‘Nimrod’ theme from the Enigma Variations), and after a largely positive journey, the work ends in extreme, unexpected darkness, beautifully painted by the choir.  According to Michael Quinn’s programme note, The Music Makers was composed in the wake of the sinking of the Titanic, which affected Elgar ‘acutely’. Litton produces an excellent sound for the Elgar, and the choir are exceedingly well in tune, and expressive.

The RTÉ Philharmonic Choir have risen to the occasion, giving an excellent account of themselves on their 30th anniversary.