We live in an age of trumpeting tweets and bombastic oratory. Last night’s programme reflected something of this esprit with loud, declamatory works opening and closing the concert. In contrast, the pieces in between assuaged our senses with silkily, lush harmonies. The opening work, Humiliated and Insulted, by contemporary Irish composer Gerald Barry was a contemporary take on the chorale. Scored for choir and orchestra, it is a newly commissioned work by the RTE NSO and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and it received its first outing last night. Based on the novel of the same name by Dostoevsky, it consists of the title being shouted-sung at top volume for 10 minutes accompanied by a plodding orchestral accompaniment. The opening minute was gripping, but after a while both the constant, loud dynamic and endless, trudging repetition of the three words began to grate on the ears.

Dietrich Henschel © Susanne Diesner
Dietrich Henschel
© Susanne Diesner

Much more congenial on the auditory canal were the caressing tones of Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder. Setting Friedrich Ruckert’s poems to music, Mahler created five songs that demand a wide range and a deep personal sensitivity. While the heartfelt sensitivity of Dietrich Henschel was never in doubt, the performance grew more convincing with each passing song. The smooth lyricism of his mid-range was captivating throughout though he was less convincing in both the upper and lower ranges. His projection was not huge either but the NSO under the watchful eye of Hans Graf responded with delicate playing.

These shortcomings were most apparent in the opening “Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft” where the long lines were not always successfully achieved. While the “Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder” lacked nimbleness, Henschel imbued the “Um Mitternacht” with a good sense of foreboding and sadness. As the seductive harmonies of “Liebst du um Schönheit” shimmered below, Henschel’s baritone voice soared above. He gave a touching account of “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen”, unearthing the soul of the music, revealing its poetic beauty.

Graf’s decision to employ only 23 strings rather than the whole string section for Strauss’ Metamorphosen was both daring and a good idea. Scored for 23 solo strings, Strauss weaves a melancholic thread of counterpoint throughout where at times each instrument has its own individual line. The reduced numbers allowed for greater clarity in the individual lines rather than allowing the already lush harmonies turn into mush. Graf strove to highlight the long, lingering phrases that consistently resisted closure, enveloping them in a miasma of brooding introspection. If at times there was a little hoarseness in the violins, this was made up for by the intense yearning of their vibrato.

Shaking us out of this elegiac reflection, Bruckner’s Te Deum boomed forth with great élan, the RTÉ Philharmonic choir giving it their all. Composed in between the Seventh and Eighth Symphonies, it is a dramatic, not to say operatic hymn of praise to God. Bruckner, a devout Catholic, proclaimed that “I will present to God the score of my Te Deum, and He will judge me mercifully”.

Scored for four soloists, choir, orchestra and optional organ, one and all captured the euphoric exultation of this work. The opening thundered forth from the choir while the te prophetarum was wonderfully hair-raising. Proving that fortissimo wasn’t the only dynamic on the menu this evening, the choir delivered an atmospherically hushed Patrem immensae and ratcheted up the tension with some effective crescendi towards the end.

There was unevenness to the soloists both in terms of timbre and projection. Soprano Majella Cullagh soared out effortlessly over the others though at the expense of the balance of the quartet. Sadly, the sweet tone of alto Anne Marie Gibbons was lost amidst the general fervent supplications and Henschel struggled to get down to the low notes with any degree of volume. It took some time for tenor Paul McNamara’s voice to open up, but by the time Te ergo arrived there were some delightful moments of dialogue with leader’s Elaine Clarke’s solo.

Graf, who demonstrated fine musicianship all evening, drew both lofty, declamatory playing from the orchestra and devotional piety.