RTÉ Concert Orchestra at National Concert Hall, on 7 September 2016

Opening tonight, ‘Composing the Island’ is a significant contribution to the 1916 centenary celebrations, encompassing 28 concerts over three weeks, with music by over 90 Irish composers, amounting to about 200 or so works from the last 100 years, some of them to be heard live for the first time. It’s a big deal: at the reception beforehand the great and the good of the nation’s art music scene mingle, speeches are given, and a new book (The Invisible Art: A Century of Music in Ireland, ed. Michael Dervan) is launched. With even the President showing up for the concert, the only one left out is Minister Humphreys, conspicuous by her absence. Nevertheless, there’s an optimistic bravery to this undertaking. Will there be an audience?

Thankfully a good proportion of the reception crowd stay on for the music. Conductor Kenneth Montgomery makes a welcome return to the stage of the concert hall. He draws committed playing from the RTÉ Concert Orchestra from the very start, with the hushed opening to Stanford’s Irish Rhapsody No. 4. Subtitled ‘The Fisherman of Lough Neagh and What He Saw’, this may be the Irish Rhapsody of Stanford most concerned with national destiny but its approach is cosmopolitan, deftly arranging Ulster tunes within broader hints of Russian and Czech national styles (and a nod to Wagner towards the end). It requires a wide stylistic palette, and the players respond well. David Agnew delivers the first of several ravishing cor anglais solos of the night, his rich tone rising above some atmospheric string playing.

After this, Norman Hay’s musical portrait Dunluce presents the riskiest venture of the programme. Inspired by the ruins of Dunluce Castle, the tone poem’s scattered ideas seem in comparison tentative and under-developed, though there are some attractive and promising moments of colour. The ensemble gives an honest account, and ironically the most atmospheric moment of the work comes in its final bars, as the edifice seemingly recedes back into the mists.

The most impressive discovery of the evening is the Symphony No. 1 (Glencree) of Ina Boyle. Last performed in studio concerts on Radio Éireann back in the 1940s, this is, amazingly, its first complete public performance. From the very start, the symphony establishes an arresting sound-world, concentrated and serene by turns. The orchestra brings out the work’s intensity with sensitive and focused playing, bringing to life a work that has been unjustly neglected. The solidity and confidence of the orchestral writing is impressive. One only wishes that the composer had had the encouragement and experience to achieve a more balanced structure, and the work certainly leaves one wanting more. Given the dark poignancy of silence surrounding her music, however – Boyle was fated to hear very few of her large-scale works performed – the symphony’s understated ending is perhaps all the more appropriate. It is an auspicious and provocative start to this celebration of Irish music.

Programme:

Charles Villiers Stanford: Irish Rhapsody No. 4 – The Fisherman of Lough Neagh and What He Saw (1913)

Norman Hay: Dunluce (1921)

Ina Boyle: Symphony No. 1 ‘Glencree’ (1927)

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