The Irish Chamber Orchestra, under the charismatic leadership of the Hungarian conductor Gábor Tákacs-Nagy, began the second installment of their 2017/18 season with a programme that consisted of Elgar’s Serenade for Strings, a world premiere by the young Cork composer Sam Perkin and Brahms’s String Sextet No. 1 in B-flat major, performed here in a version for string orchestra.
The one thing that was abundantly evident throughout this concert was the good rapport that existed between the conductor and the players, a quality that the audience was invited to share by the refreshingly laid-back manner in which Tákacs-Nagy presented the concert, prefacing each piece with an introduction delivered in his own inimitable style.
These preambles plotted an amusing and highly unpredictable course, taking in some rather Spinal-Tapesque musings on the emotional properties of the key of E minor in relation to Elgar’s Serenade as well as the usual, indispensible speculations that perhaps the opening theme of Brahms’s Sextet was a musical love letter to Clara Schumann. Notwithstanding these mild eccentricities, the audience was clearly quite taken by Tákacs-Nagy’s approach which cultivated an easy, vibrant atmosphere.
And so to the music. Elgar’s Serenade is one of those works whose relatively short duration conceals the enormous amount of detailed phrasing that has to be packed into each one of its three movements. The ICO excelled at this throughout, shaping Elgar’s wonderfully arched melodies into progressively more intense accumulations of energy and getting the larger peaks spot-on dynamically. Indeed it’s hard to fault any aspect of the orchestra’s performance of this ever-popular miniature.
Sam Perkin’s 365 Variations on a Gesture for percussion and string orchestra was written for his fellow Corkonian, the percussionist Alex Petcu. Perkin favours an approach to composition reminiscent of the Japanese painter Katsushika Hokusai in his One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji. Applied to music, this takes the form of presenting a small, self-contained gesture and then repeating it with continual variations. This strategy was used to great effect by Kevin Volans back in the nineties (and Morton Feldman before him) but has since become a well-worn tactic that perpetually leaves this reviewer feeling underwhelmed and slightly put out by the notion that one is supposed to be overjoyed by the fact that nothing much has actually happened.
Such accusations could not be levelled at Perkin however; he pushed this strategy much further than most are willing to go with it. The material that we ended up with at variation 300 or so (I wasn’t counting) was considerably different from what we started out with at the beginning. Inspired by waves, the piece opened with a bright, radiant sonority that made its way from the violins down to the churning basses. The initial calm soon dissipated as the variation process kicked-in and each gesture became progressively more intense, frequently overlapping and merging with each other into washes of sound. Initially, the percussion was cast as more of an atmospheric compliment to the strings, but they soon worked in tandem to deliver a pulsing second half that gathered all 365 gestures into a single extended climax, capped by a short reprise of the opening material. The piece was well conceived for the forces at hand and received an excellent performance from the ICO and Petcu who navigated the modest technical challenges with ease.
Love letter or no love letter, the thing about the first movement of Brahms’ Sextet is that it begins with a broad restrained theme in the cello whose expressive power is only gradually unveiled in successive stages as the exposition evolves. This sense of development was well grasped by the orchestra and the impassioned second theme, again taken by the cello, was carried off nicely. However, the true goal of the exposition is the wonderful extended dominant pedal whose gentle climax – it barely registers a forte – contains a beautiful moment in which the first and second violins pass dovetailing descending leaps back and forth between them. In the ICO’s account however, these leaps were nowhere to be heard as the violins were clearly instructed to play pianissimo in the vain hope of uncovering motivic riches elsewhere.
While readers will no doubt see this as pedantic quibbling, I must admit that their absence slightly spoiled the first movement for me. These grievances, however, were soon forgotten by the manner in which the orchestra went about performing the rest of the movements. The second movement, a set of variations, was given an utterly committed account while the folk-inspired third movement – conventionally a light reprise before the finale – may have been the unlikely highlight of the evening as Tákacs-Nagy could barely conceal his delight in temporarily hijacking the ICO and converting it into an upmarket equivalent of a central European folk group in a truly uplifting performance.
The evening was rounded off by an encore consisting of two short waltzes which went down well and the whole performance was enthusiastically received by the audience, most of whom I imagine would be quite happy to tell this reviewer to stick his dovetailing descending leaps in his pocket, bugger off and give Tákacs-Nagy and his band the credit they deserve – which, on this occasion, he is more than happy to do so.
The Irish Chamber Orchestra’s next concerts feature Peter Whelan (Director), Christian Elliott (cello) and Aoife Nic Athlaoich (cello) performing Bach, Vivaldi and Purcell on 19–22 October in Ennis, Dublin, Letterkenny and Sligo. Visit www.irishchamberorchestra.com
Published on 4 October 2017
Adrian Smith is Lecturer in Musicology at TU Dublin Conservatoire.