The opening concert of the New Year in the National Concert Hall celebrated 30 years of the RTE Philharmonic Choir. Occupying the entire choir balcony the 150-strong choir sang for two-thirds of the concert, opening with Everyone Sang, a specially commissioned piece by Northern Irish composer Elaine Agnew. Irish pianist Hugh Tinney gave the choir a break with Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 20 in D minor K466, while the concert closed with Elgar’s The Music Makers, an appropriate title given the celebrations.

Andrew Litton © Danny Turner
Andrew Litton
© Danny Turner

Agnew’s Everyone Sang is an effective contemporary piece though arguably, the mood was more solemn than celebratory for the occasion for which it was written. Set to Siegfried Sassoon’s poem of the same name, the two stanzas relates the joyous outburst of the soldiers at the end of World War I. The National Symphony Orchestra captured the vibrancy of the orchestral opening well while the rhythmic drive of the declamatory opening from the choir made for an impressive start. There was a delightful languorous quality to the line “winging wildly across the white Orchards” before subsiding on the lines “on – on – and out of sight”, the dissonances floating softly into the ether. The second stanza opened in lively fashion with the orchestra swelling and the voices soaring, reflecting the line “Everyone’s voice was suddenly lifted”. The piece grew to an emotional climax in the penultimate line which found its release in the cry of “O” from the unison choir accompanied by full orchestra. The last line, which ended on a major third, was like a special message for the choir - “The singing will never be done”.

Andrew Litton elicited a suitably dark and brooding sound from the orchestra at the opening of the Mozart, that was aptly disquieting. This atmosphere was complemented by soloist Hugh Tinney who tempered the foreboding with moments of peace. If I had to sum up Tinney’s playing in two words it would be “cerebral” and “restrained”. Right from his carefully polished opening to the darting passagework before the cadenza, Tinney demonstrated his characteristic thoughtfulness and intelligence in his approach to this work. The sound he evoked from the piano was elegantly restrained though when occasion demanded, as in the broken octave section at end of exposition, fiery and intense. Yet even in these lively sections there was a solemn sobriety which was most becoming. The development section gave us some rich contrasting sections of poetry from Tinney and passion from the orchestra. Such Sturm und Drang subsided with the first movement allowing Tinney to create a wonderful stillness in the budding romanticism of the opening of the second movement. Interestingly, Tinney left out some of the ornamentation opting to sing out the unvarnished lines of music in all their simplicity instead. The middle section in G minor erupted in a storm of triplets never short on the dramatics before melting into some deliciously soft playing in the recapitulation. The finale flew along, propelled by nervous energy at the outward edge of the Allegro assai marking. This made for a gripping performance as the music quickly moved from episode to episode, now cheerfully bobbing along in F major, now pianist and orchestra exchanging ideas. The accelerando by the orchestra as it approached the cadenza was not very convincing but apart far from this minor quibble this was an entirely gripping performance both from soloist and orchestra.

The choir was back after the interval for Elgar’s The Music Makers joined by mezzo-soprano Imelda Drumm as soloist. Filled with self-quotations from his Enigma VariationsThe Dream of Gerontius and both his symphonies, The Music Makers is profoundly personal and at the same time a celebration of artistic creativity. The music makes many demands on the musicians, not least the task of balancing a 150-strong choir and organ up in the choir balcony with a soloist and full symphony orchestra on stage. This was always going to be a challenge and one that was not entirely successfully achieved in last night's performance. Given the level of bombast inherent in the louder sections of this work, the sonic boom of the brass and percussion sections tended to overwhelm the rest of the choir not to mention the soloist at times. In contrast to the brass, the organ was scarcely audible throughout. This is not to forget the many beautiful moments when Drumm soared beautifully on the high notes, pouring emotion into every word or the apocalyptic warning from the choir “That ye of the past must die” or the mysterious closing lines “We are the music-makers And we are the dreamers of dreams” sung with real expressive depth.