The RTÉ Concert Orchestra at the National Concert Hall, 12 August 2014.
RTÉ are clearly onto a good thing producing these summer weekly lunchtime concerts, with this concert attracting nearly a full house. It also takes the form of a live broadcast on Lyric fm, and is introduced from the stage by Evelyn Cockburn, which suits the seated audience as well, with no printed programme to refer to. In any case, expectations are high for the afternoon’s performance.
Suppé’s Morning Noon and Night in Vienna overture gets things off to a spirited start and sets the tone. The transitions between the different sections are crisply managed by Lam, and carried off with appropriate swagger, though the balance between brass and strings seems at times a little uneven. Following this with Bartók’s Romanian Folk Dances, a more pungent flavour is added to the mix, with the varied instrumental colours bringing out a ripe astringency and warm playing, most especially in the ‘Horn Dance’. The swirling final three sections – the Romanian Polka and two ‘fast’ dances – encouraged vigorous playing from the strings though, in general, the chosen tempos tend to be leisurely for this work, giving the performance a slightly distanced feel.
The Orchestra is joined by the Dublin-born singer Anna Devin, making her debut with the ensemble. Her sweet-toned lyric soprano voice easily enhances the expressive lines of Rachmaninov’s Vocalise. This is one of those deceptively tricky pieces which should seem to flow easily (not always so easy in practice). However, here and there, brief moments of uncertainty manifest between soloist and orchestra. Weber’s concert waltz Invitation to the Dance (in the usual orchestration by Berlioz) follows, providing a more solid performance, led by some lovely solo playing from principal cellist Emma-Jane Murphy. The work’s ‘false’ ending received inevitable applause before the orchestra had the chance to play the subdued coda – one wonders how many conductors have been tempted to cut it?
Devin returned to the stage to sing En Proie à la Tristesse (‘Plagued by sadness, to no longer taste any joys….’), the countess Adele’s first-act aria from Rossini’s comic opera Le Comte Ory. Devin sang this role in a London production of Ory earlier in the summer and clearly relished performing the aria in character, even at the risk of going a bit over the top, happily gesturing and fidgeting away, all the while negotiating a glittering coloratura line. In the midst of a typical ‘summer pops’ programme, it is a pleasure to hear such a lesser-known piece as this, and Devin sings it with the necessary verve and wit. The orchestra, up on stage rather than in a theatre pit, and playing louder instruments than Rossini would have known, couldn’t quite capture the effervescent lightness needed, but (mostly) avoided overwhelming the singer.
Bringing the afternoon’s music to a close, the orchestra play two short pieces, a cheeky reading of Brahms’ fifth Hungarian Dance, and a fast polka by Eduard Strauss (younger bro of the waltz king) Mit Dampf, where the brass manage to out-puff the gentle sound of the train whistle.
Efficiently conducted by Lam, the RTÉ Concert Orchestra works through this programme of central European concert dances and sparkling bel canto effectively, if at times a little doggedly. They do, however, send a satisfied audience off into the uncertain August showers.
Anna Devin – Soprano
Dane Lam – Conductor
Suppé – Morning, Noon and Night in Vienna Overture
Bartók – Romanian Folk Dances
Rachmaninov – Vocalise
Weber – Invitation to the Dance
Rossini – En proie à la tristesse from Le Comte Ory
Brahms – Hungarian Dance No. 5 in G minor
Strauss – Mit Dampf Polka-schnell Op. 70