Irish Chamber Orchestra at National Concert Hall, 4 February 2015
As the only ‘national’ ensemble based outside the capital, the Irish Chamber Orchestra tours more frequently than most. Its normal Dublin venue is the RDS, but tonight sees them in the less-familiar surroundings of the National Concert Hall. The programme, even with only four works, varies widely, including ‘late’ Schumann, a new work by up-and-coming composer Sam Perkin, all of which is book-ended by both younger and older Shostakovich.
The ICO opens with a work composed when Shostakovich was in his late teens, the Prelude and Scherzo for string octet. This lean work shows Shostakovich already well on the way to establishing his style. The eight players from the ICO give the Prelude a dry, hushed feel, with leader Katherine Hunka delivering a richly idiomatic solo. The brilliant and muscular Scherzo that follows is played with gusto, the group even managing to convey the sense of seeming to be a larger ensemble.
The young Hungarian cellist István Várdai, who toured with the orchestra in 2013, makes a welcome return as soloist in the next work, Schumann’s Cello Concerto in A minor. This work was disdained – and unperformed – in Schumann’s lifetime partly because it avoids technical display for its own sake and refuses to pit the soloist against the ensemble, preferring instead to view the concerto as an opportunity for dialogue and collaboration. With Várdai, seated with the orchestra around him on all three sides, this sense of playful exchange is ever-present. The orchestra contrasts the dryness of the Shostakovich with a rich tonal warmth in this work, whilst maintaining crisp lightness of ensemble. Várdai’s playing is eloquent and telling throughout, his tone smooth and silvery, making for a wonderful performance. Richly applauded, he brings the first half to a close with an encore, Schumann’s Abendlied – originally for piano duet, here arranged for cello and orchestra.
After the interval comes the headlined ‘world premiere’ – Nimbus for string orchestra by Sam Perkin; a work commissioned by the ICO and funded by the Arts Council. Written in 18 parts, a separate line for each musician, this is a work that explores ideas of radiance and shimmer, with the meaning of nimbus as ‘aura’ highlighted in the brief programme note. Gestural lines gather by accumulation into glistening surfaces, before the ensemble breaks up into separate zones of activity, low against high, long-held chords against short, repeated motifs. Perkin clearly has an ear for string tone, and uses the instruments beautifully – in response, the work receives committed, energetic playing from the orchestra, fading to perfect silence at the end.
The concert concludes with one of the great works of the mid-20th century, Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony for Strings, Op. 110a. This is Rudolf Barshai’s fine transcription for chamber orchestra (approved by the composer) of Shostakovich’s eighth string quartet. Written in an astonishing three days in 1960, the original quartet was composed in Dresden, then still in ruins, and is dedicated to the victims of fascism and war. It is a mighty and grief-stricken work, and is very well-played here. The ensemble projects the drama of the score with a range of tone colours, from the smooth textures of the work’s desolate opening to the gritty, charged excitement of the faster passages. There are good solos from Hunka and principal cellist Rudi de Groote. The open spaces of the half-filled concert hall seem to have a diffusing effect on the sound, and one is left wondering how much more intense this would be in a smaller – or better-attended – venue.
Shostakovich: Prelude and Scherzo for string octet, Op. 11
Schumann: Cello Concerto in A minor, Op. 129 (arr. for string orchestra by F. Vygen & A. Kahl)
Schumann: Abendlied, Op. 85/12 (arr. for cello and orchestra)
Sam Perkin: Nimbus (2015) (Premiere performance)
Shostakovich: Chamber Symphony for Strings, Op. 110a (String Quartet No. 8 in C minor, Op. 110, transcribed for string orchestra by Rudolf Barshai)
Irish Chamber Orchestra, with István Várdai (cello)