Irish composer John Buckley describes his Concerto for Organ and Orchestra as “a volcano exploding” and so it was, in a thrilling rendition at the National Concert Hall with Fergal Caulfield at the organ console and David Brophy conducting the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra

The revival of the 1992 concerto – which Buckley wrote for the inauguration of the then-new Kenneth Jones organ in the National Concert Hall – was the centrepiece of a concert of all-Irish music. Also on the programme were Charles Villiers Stanford's Celtic-themed Irish Rhapsody no. 2 in F minor, Op.84, “The Lament for the Son of Ossian”, and Ina Boyle's poignant 1927 Symphony no. 1, “Glencree”, inspired by the landscape of her native Wicklow.

David Brophy © RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra
David Brophy
© RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra

The concert was part of the “Towards 2022” series focusing on Irish composers, a follow-up to the intensive 27-concert “Composing the Island” marathon in September 2016. It shows a commendable determination by the RTÉ NSO and the National Concert Hall to present rarely heard music by Irish composers.

What those who listened at home on RTÉ Lyric FM missed was the sonic spectacular of Buckley's organ concerto, which can only be experienced in the concert hall. His half-hour-long piece had the organ pouring forth volumes of notes in a molten flow of sound. Buckley, who has said some of his main influences were Berio and Penderecki, sets up his concerto as a dialogue between the organ and the orchestra, in this case a souped-up ensemble. The score calls for three flutes, three oboes, three clarinets, two bassoons, contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, two trombones, bass trombone, tuba, two sets of timpani, a wide range of percussion and strings.

What makes the piece more than an organ romp are the delicate moments midway through. That section contains some beautiful passages for winds, and especially the flute. It makes perfect sense when you learn that Buckley was a student of one of Ireland's most beloved flute teachers, the late Doris Keogh. The performance was dedicated to the memory of Peter Sweeney, who died last year and who played the organ for the premiere. While Sweeney's performance was captured on CD, Caulfield's will stick in the ears of all those who saw him. Whether frantically working the stops and keys on the console in the choir balcony at the back of the NCH stage or producing massive volumes of sound with the pedals, it was an impressive tour de force.

The concert opened with the prolific Dublin-born, but mostly English-based, Stanford's Irish Rhapsody no. 2. Stanford, who wrote vast amounts of church music and some now forgotten operas, like almost everyone else in his era fell under Wagner's spell. So it is no surprise that his rhapsody, inspired by what is now usually considered to be poetry by the "faux bard" Ossian concocted by the 18th-century Scottish poet James Macpherson, contains a processional much like the one for the Knights of the Grail in Parsifal. It is a pleasant piece, playing to Stanford's strength which was, as G.B. Shaw noted, that when he wrote anything free of Irish influences, it failed, but when he used an Irish melody “the transformation was so great as to place him among the great composers”.

The concert concluded with Boyle's paean to the mountains, gentle hills and seascapes of her native county. It is tempting to think of Boyle as one of the many women composers isolated and cut off from the mainstream, but it was not so clear cut. She received lessons in London from Ralph Vaughan Williams and one section of this evocative and charming piece was performed in 1925 by the London Symphony Orchestra under Sir Adrian Boult. That said, the first two movements come off more as sketches than fully developed, leaving the last movement, “Above Lough Bray”, which is the one Boult played, as the only one with real heft. It is a piece well worth hearing, but the listener can't help but think Boyle would have done more with it, had her music been played more often during her lifetime. It is good of the NCH and the NSO to remedy that situation, if belatedly, for Boyle and a host of other Irish composers.

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