“How can the playing of the 25-year-old Northern Irish pianist Michael McHale be as fluent and inspired as, say, Lang Lang, yet nobody knows about him?” A German critic wrote that about Michael McHale six years ago, and since then the young Irishman has made significant steps forward in career-building: he’s Sir James Galway’s regular recital partner, has made three acclaimed recordings with clarinettist Michael Collins, and recently released his first recital CD, The Irish Piano.

© Michael McHale
© Michael McHale

That debut disc is decidedly not the type of flashy, self-advertising programme you might expect from the virtuosos of the international circuit. Instead it’s crammed with little-known music by mainly Irish composers, some of which McHale included at a Harty Room recital in his native Belfast. Two pieces by Belfast composer Philip Hammond (who’s currently writing McHale a concerto) stood out particularly. They’re from an as yet unpublished sequence entitled Miniatures and Modulations, extrapolations and meditations on traditional tunes notated by Edward Bunting at the Belfast Harp Festival of 1792. The Beardless Boy, all chattering syncopation and shifting metres, is specially demanding of the player, and highlighted McHale’s ability to cleanly harness rhythms without sacrificing the élan and cumulative excitement demanded by the music.

Field’s Nocturne no. 10 in E minor elicited a performance of delicate poetry, and the refinement of McHale’s interpretive temperament was again evident in a brace of short pieces by contemporary Irish composers Garrett Sholdice and Donnacha Dennehy. Sholdice’s Am Koppenplatz was particularly effective, a spectral reminiscence of a square in the Spandau district of Berlin. The gossamer textures were exquisitely weighted by McHale, the air pregnant with suspense and mystery.

There were nocturnes also by Chopin (Op.62, no. 2) and Barber (Op.33), and in both you noticed how intelligently McHale underpinned the leading melodies with left-hand commentary. His balancing of voices between the hands was unusually subtle, especially in the wider, more angular intervals of the Barber piece, whose tacit anxieties in this performance glided particularly close to the surface.

The evening was capped by Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. It’s a recent addition to McHale’s repertoire, but you wouldn’t have guessed it, such is his command of the work’s constantly shifting moods and perambulatory structure. There was no simple playing for effect here whatsoever: McHale constantly deployed his wide variety of dynamics to helpfully map out the music’s architecture, and married a vivid pictorialism of response to each of the “exhibits” with a palpable sense of forward momentum through Mussorgsky’s gallery. This was emphatically not a Pictures that ever sagged or felt episodic.

It was also a Pictures which never sounded over-forced or clattery. Even in the climactic Great Gate of Kiev episode the impression was one of mighty resonance, not aggressive pummelling; nobility, not hollow aggrandisement. That’s partly because McHale is a naturally self-effacing performer, deeply musical, and therefore always focused on the music. Listening, one’s reminded of Kempff’s pellucid objectivity – you can actually trace a line back from one of McHale’s teachers to the German pianist – and, from a more recent generation, the poise and elegance of Murray Perahia.

There was one encore, McHale’s own tastefully restrained arrangement of My Lagan Love, the traditional Irish melody. It’s one of three self-penned arrangements he played in the recital (the others are Cailín ó cois tSuire Mé and The Coulin), bespeaking once again his eschewal of easy, off-the-shelf repertoire solutions, and a determination to provide his audience with fresh, unhackneyed listening experiences.

McHale is off to Minneapolis soon, for a belated American concerto debut with the Minnesota Orchestra, a date postponed when stalled salary negotiations precipitated the orchestral lock-out which has only recently ended. It’s another major staging-post in a process of patient career development which could easily see McHale develop into the most significant pianist to emerge from Ireland since Barry Douglas.