There are a series of concerts for the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra Friday concerts under the banner Towards 2022 which are designed to celebrate and showcase Irish composers. Why 2022 we can only speculate as not one word was mentioned about this in the programme. Tonight’s concert gave us a chance to hear infrequently heard works from Boydell, Boyle and Stanford. Disappointingly, there were many empty seats in the concert hall which might have been a contributory factor to the underwhelming effect of the first half.

George Jackson
© Tim Dunk

The first piece was a mournful affair Boydell’s In Memoriam Mahatma Gandhi. Written in 1948 just after the assassination of Gandhi, pacifist Boydell completed the work within five months and it remains one of his most popular works. It is written in three parts: prelude, funeral march and coda. The prelude opened with tense tremolos before a mournful melody was passed from cello to cor anglais. In the Funeral March the strings etched their eerie melody against an ominous drum beat. Conductor George Jackson imbued a nice sense of peace to the coda, but overall he failed to rouse the orchestra to engage with less familiar music.

Ina Boyle was an early 20th-century composer from Wicklow. Tonight featured two works for cello and orchestra Elegy and Psalm, the former being a more successful but more derivative composition. Martin Johnson, who was promoted from the first desk of the cellos to soloist, failed to wow the audience. His tone, while sweet and vibrato-laden, didn’t project sufficiently over the orchestra. The orchestration of the Elegy wasn’t particularly exciting and the NSO took little more than a lacklustre interest in the music. Admittedly there were many lacunae on a compositional level but the piece does possess soulful melodic lines for the cello and there was a whiff of Brahms in its conception.

Johnson performed better in Boyle’s second work The Psalm for cello and orchestra, singing out his melody passionately with interesting harp interjections. However the declamatory chords from the orchestra missed out on the rising tension.

Stanford’s Symphony no. 3 was the most convincing item on the programme of this evening’s concert, both in terms of its performance and its musical merits. Nicknamed The Irish because of its use of traditional folk tunes and jigs within the symphony, it is Brahmsian in its orchestration and at times its ideas. Jackson galvanised the orchestra who responded with an animated Allegro moderato. The brass rang out and the strings sang out their lovely circle of fifths. George Bernard Shaw decried the second movement on first hearing it, saying that “it was not a Scherzo at all, but a shindy, expending its force in riotous dancing”. I loved every moment of it. Its use of the flattened 7th in the Irish idiom was instantly appealing, the rhythms were sharply delineated, punctuated by powerful brass. Riotous dancing it may have been, but in a thoroughly good sort of way. While the slow movement possessed elements of an Irish lament, I was far more taken by the direct quotation on the horn from Brahms' Fourth Symphony. Stanford here showed himself to be a clever orchestrator with the juxtaposition of harp and woodwind before the strings gradually introduce a smooth note on the palette. The finale was a tour de force of various Irish tunes which Jackson and the NSO delivered with aplomb.