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Bax and Debussy at the Palm House

Saturday 16 October 2004 , 8pm ,

Palm House, National Botanical Gardens , Dublin .

Ensemble Syrinx.



Review by Tony Williams

On 16 October I attended a concert of chamber music given in the newly restored Palm House at the National Botanical Gardens in Dublin . If a Palm House suggests warmth, this was singularly lacking in the conservatory on a chilly late autumn evening. Whilst the audience shivered, the harpist arrived on the platform wearing gloves, which she removed only seconds before the performance began, and the violist had to breathe and blow on his fingers between movements. The reverberative acoustic of the high-roofed glass building had a muffling effect on the music. There was also a problem of balance, with the viola player, who was sitting slightly behind the flautist and harpist to either side of him, sounding on occasion swamped by his two partners. Despite these difficulties it was a most enjoyable evening of music-making, the first in a series of concerts in the Palm House, before the trees take over. There were lovely performances from the three musicians who are principals in the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland and form the Ensemble Syrinx: Riona O’Duinnin, flute, Andreja Malir, harp, and John Lynch, viola, who hails from Melbourne , Australia , and was trained at the Victorian College of the Arts.

The programme included works by Schubert, his ‘Arpeggione’ Sonata, in a most effective arrangement for viola and harp made by Andreja Malir, Lili Boulanger’s ‘Nocturne’, Debussy’s ‘Syrinx’, and some pieces for solo harp and harp and flute by Granados and others. But it is the two ‘main’ works of the evening, Bax’s ‘Elegiac Trio’ for flute , viola, and harp, and Debussy’s late Sonata for the same combination of instruments that I would like to report on, for these two gorgeous compositions were for me and many others the highlights of the evening. And notwithstanding the problems created by the venue mentioned earlier, they were given beautiful and idiomatic performances by these talented young musicians, which (almost) made us forget the cold.

Certain parallels can be drawn between the two works. The most obvious is that each was written for the same instruments and within a year of each other, the Debussy in 1915 and the Bax in 1916. The dates of the early performances of Debussy’s Sonata (one of them in London ) indicate that Bax cannot have heard the Debussy before composing his own Trio. What was going on in and around their lives at the time influenced both men in the creation of these works. Debussy suffered great anguish because of his failing health - he was suffering from cancer – and also because of the parlous state of France at the hands of Germany at that stage of the First World War. This is the background to the sadness expressed by the Sonata, and Debussy himself commented thus on the work: ‘It’s terribly melancholic and I don’t know if one ought to laugh at it or cry…Maybe both?’ As for Bax, we know that his ‘Elegiac Trio’ was one of three pieces composed in response to his own sense of loss resulting from the Easter Rising of 1916 in Dublin . It might be added that the timbre of the three instruments chosen by the composers is admirably suited to the overriding melancholy of the one work and the elegiac mood of the other, and certainly both Bax and Debussy explore the colours of the instruments, singly and in combination, to wonderful effect.

There are also differences between the two works. Andreja Malir informed me that the Bax Trio is technically the more difficult to perform, particularly for the harpist. Yet in terms of structural composition the Bax is the more straightforward of the two and, as a consequence, it is more accessible to the first-time listener, and I think this was observable from the slightly more enthusiastic response of the audience to the ‘Elegiac Trio’. In Bax’s Trio there are two easily identifiable melodic themes. The first is a gorgeous melody, following, and accompanied by, harp arpeggios, whilst the second is a slightly slower tune which gradually acquires an ever more Irish flavour and put me in mind of the lovely melody in ‘Into the Twilight’. These themes and sections of the themes are developed. After a re-statement of the opening melody in full, there is further development of both themes, this time more closely interwoven. Towards the end, as the music becomes slower, a four-note rising figure, played and varied mainly by the flute, becomes prominent as an accompaniment to the second main theme, as elaborated by the viola and the harp. The work closes on a quiet, contemplative note, as if the composer is lost in thought.

Though called a Sonata, Debussy’s trio is unconventional in a formal sense. Each of its three movements contains several thematic strands which come and go, return and interweave in an apparently random fashion. But this results in an exquisite filigree of sound, with ever changing colour, texture and also mood, now mournful, now vivacious. Only one or two of the wisps of themes expand into full melody. Foremost of these is the beautiful opening theme of the second movement, whose pervasive sadness is dispelled for a while by a high-spirited idea, but which subsequently holds sway again, its mood firmly re-established by a lovely passage introduced by the viola that dominates the movement’s conclusion. By and large, though, and in comparison to the Bax, the music of Debussy’s Sonata is elusive. Yet it is a gem of a piece, which fascinates the listener and encourages ever greater exploration. It was wonderful to have a musical ambition fulfilled It was wonderful to have a musical ambition fulfilled that Saturday evening, to hear these two works side by side in a concert, works which are in some ways ‘blood brothers’, but in others very different.

After the concert I met Andreja’s former harp teacher, now an elderly lady. She had met Sir Arnold Bax when he was in Ireland for his university visits in the early 1950s. He was ‘a man of few words, never using two when one would do’ – ‘unlike his use of notes in some of his music’, she added.  I smiled wanly and mentally ground my teeth!