You could have heard a pin drop in Dublin's National Concert Hall midway through the Irish première of Gerald Barry's mischievous Organ Concerto, and that's not because organist Thomas Trotter and maestro Stefan Asbury leading the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra weren't playing loud enough. It was due to the 66-year-old Irish composer, who often lards his works with musical pranks, inserting the Angelus at the halfway point – with special resonance in a country where the bells signaling a moment of silence for prayer still precede news broadcasts.

Thomas Trotter © Patrick Garvey
Thomas Trotter
© Patrick Garvey

That wasn't the only surreal moment in a concerto that runs hell for leather to its conclusion in just over 17 minutes and change. In a nod to another musical prankster, György Ligeti, we get 21 metronomes ticking away maniacally. Cymbal crashes announce the beginning – and end – of a harmonium solo. Timpani play scales, not once but several times... even though the timpani can only be tuned to one note at a time. There also are heart-stopping glissandi, in one of which the orchestra reaches an impossibly high pitch, on the piccolo, only to be outdone by the organ heading into the canine-audible registers. If it sounds like Barry might be taking the piss, that would be wrong; this is more of a love song to the organ, but with ears wide open.

Barry started playing the organ as a teenager, on a wheezy harmonium in the parish church, and graduated to church organs in major cities around Europe. So his Organ Concerto is something of a distillation of his career as an organist, but it's also a piece laced with laugh-aloud humour. In an accompanying programme note that occasionally sowed more confusion than clarity, Barry said that when he was growing up in rural County Clare the Angelus "was a haunting marking of times of the day" and its tolling would produce "silence over the whole village... Then when the bells ended you continued whatever you had been doing before though in my case it was usually nothing."

The concerto opens with a duet between organ and principal trumpet, establishing they can play together, until the organ seems to have a temper tantrum and calls a halt. Other parts of the orchestra join in the fun, resulting in one of Barry's signature descending glissandos that sounds like an LP record juddering to a stop, only to resume and soar back up again a few seconds later. Barry reports how a sacristan in Ennis hated his organ playing so much he would occasionally pull the plug, causing the organ “to implode from lack of air”.

After a wonderfully repetitious and unhinged harmonium solo, which sounds like something a church organist at wit's end would play, the concerto concludes with a rousing, hymn-like arrangement of a piece that Barry wrote in 2016 for orchestra and mixed chorus called Humiliated and Insulted. It's a barn-stormer of a tune that could have had the Dublin audience on its feet and singing had we known the words. Based on the title of a Dostoevsky novel, they turn out to be dead easy: "humiliated and insulted", sung over and over.

Barry's mate, the composer Thomas Adès, was to have conducted this Irish premiere, as he did the world première in Birmingham in March, but cancelled. That left replacement maestro Stefan Asbury to substitute the Stravinsky and Lutoslawski on Adès' programme with Brahms' Variations on a Theme by Joseph Haydn and Tchaikovsky's Symphony no. 6 in B minor "Pathétique". The Brahms, whose variations are based on an old hymn, made a rousing opener and its churchy sound might have set the stage for Barry's piece, had it been more conventional. But anyone who may have been left perplexed by the concerto would have been well pleased with the Tchaikovsky. Asbury's reading was a model of restraint, and he extracted fine playing from the brass and woodwinds in a piece that is all too often an exercise in excess. On this night, Barry took the honours for OTT, while Asbury and the NSO's “Pathétique” went straight to the soul.

***11