RTÉ Concert Orchestra at National Concert Hall on 13 April 2016

In the RTÉ Concert Orchestra’s calendar ‘Essential Classics’ concerts are those that feature traditional classical orchestral works. According to the strapline, these are “the masterpieces everyone should hear” – a nice marketing idea, and a way of packaging what is otherwise normal fare for an orchestra. With the number of hats the Concert Orchestra has to wear, though, perhaps the ensemble feels the need to re-assert its right to perform this repertoire?

On the basis of tonight’s concert, they needn’t worry. Conductor John Wilson is fun to watch, light on his feet and efficient with his gestures, and the response he receives from the ensemble is a clean, vivid sound. Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture opens the concert with an easy conviviality; the contrasts in musical texture are clearly marked, and the sound well-balanced.

The main draw-card tonight, however, is leading Irish mezzo-soprano Patricia Bardon. Her performance of the five orchestral songs that make up Edward Elgar’s Sea Pictures is rich and electrifying from the outset. Her familiarity with this material comes across in the clarity and ease that she brings to communicating its many moods, while taking nothing for granted. The deceptive simplicity of the second song, ‘In Haven’, is served beautifully by her excellent vocal control and sense of line. There is much to enjoy in each of the songs, from the solidity and expressive richness of ‘Sabbath Morning at Sea’, to the boldly stentorian histrionics of ‘The Swimmer’ at the cycle’s close. The best-known of the songs, ‘Where Corals Lie’, is affectionately interpreted, its poetry projected to good effect, while the orchestra maintains a clear balance throughout. Bardon brings across the words with impressive clarity – not easy in the concert hall’s challenging acoustic – which is just as well, since they are not to be found in the programme booklet.

After the interval, Beethoven’s evergreen Symphony No. 6 in F (the ‘Pastoral’ Symphony) fills out the remainder of the programme. If you didn’t know this work, then tonight’s performance would make an excellent introduction – the playing has a witty, lean finesse, lithe and athletic, with no hint of weight or over-seriousness. The different episodes come alive in this clean and well-organised reading, and the playful transparency of the orchestral lines suggests the good influence of historically-informed performances. In the end, the orchestra revels in the sheer spectacle of fine sound for its own sake, the glistening warmth of the strings contrasting well with the keen focus of the woodwinds. Simple and unassuming, maybe, this is still a performance to enjoy, both for the audience and – if the expressions of the players are anything to go by – those on stage as well.

Programme:

Mendelssohn: Overture, The Hebrides (‘Fingal’s Cave’)

Elgar: Sea Pictures

Beethoven: Symphony No. 6 in F, Op. 68 (‘Pastoral’)

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