Personally, I blame Eugene Downes. Had he not mentioned that WINTERREISE was Samuel Beckett’s favourite piece of music, I would have followed the traveller’s journey with far less jaundiced eyes. One had to wonder if the appeal for Beckett, was as much about the titles of the 24 texts by Wilhelm Muller, than the music itself? I offer as evidence – Frozen Tears – Numbness – A Look Backward – Solitude – The Old Man’s Head – The Crow - Last Hope. Text number 15 – The Crow, ends on a distinctly bleak Beckettian note.
Well, I won’t be much longer
Wandering on the road.
Crow, let me finally see
Loyalty unto the grave!
This was my first Winterreise ‘live’ and one could not fault Benjamin Appl for his technically brilliant singing. His voice, soft and exquisite one minute, then hitting full throttle the next, reverberated around St John’s Priory with such vehemence that I wished we could have heard him in a larger venue. Despite a rapturous standing ovation, for some it was modified rapture. Aficionado’s of the work, whispered to me somewhat nervously, was there perhaps a genuine felt passion missing? I am relieved to be able to say that not having an expert’s ear, I was more than happy to go along with the general consensus.
The morning started early at St Canice’s, with the intriguing combination of Malcolm Proud on organ and David Power on uilleann pipes. A success at last years festival apparently, where they tried out a few short pieces, we were now offered a veritable feast of established, traditional and new works. Of the 11 selected, Purcell’s Round O was immediately arresting. A traditional air – Bean Dubha a Ghleanna, was hauntingly beautiful, and an extra frisson was added when the organ took over sotto voce to emulate the pipes. Kevin Volan’s Zulu Children’s Song, jogged along with a quiet simplicity that just made me smile. A solo for the pipes, The Fox Chase, was a terrific tone poem with an exceptional narrative drive. Who would have thought the uilleann pipes could be capable of conjuring such a visual world. All credit due of course to the brilliant talent of David Power.
At St Canice’s again in the evening for Schubert’s Symphony No 9 in C. The Irish Chamber Orchestra were in flying form, hardly surprising as its conductor Jorg Widmann practically levitated at some points. Ailish Tynan was as expected in splendid voice too for The Shepherd on the Rocks, and it amply filled this bastion of a Cathedral. Sandwiched between these two mighty works for some inexplicable reason, was Widmann’s own composition Freie Stucke. I detected the odd whiff of Bernstein, and maybe even Bernard Herrmann amongst the restless, jangling and popping orchestration. To my mind, even with the odd lyrical snippet slipped in as well, it sounded like a score in search of a film.
At 10pm, this musically diverse and demanding day ended with a revelation. It was the first time that St Canice’s Roman Catholic Parish Church had been used as a concert venue. Its austere but elegant space was the perfect fit for THE ORTHODOX SPIRIT. Chamber Choir Ireland conducted by Paul Hillier, gave a mesmerizing performance, that included Arvo Part, Stravinsky, Schnittke and the incomparable Rachmaninov. I own several copies of his magnificent Vespers (The All-Night Vigil) with much larger chorus’s, but the 18 singers fielded by the Chamber Choir were equal to any of my versions. Perhaps the smaller number resulted in a more astringent sound that suited this new and striking venue. Hopefully we will be experiencing many more concerts there over the coming festivals?