Seán Ó RIADA (1931–1971)
Overture Olynthiac (1955) [6:25]
The Banks of Sulán (1956) [9:09]
Hercules Dux Ferrariae: Nomos No.1 (1957) [18:39]
Seoladh na nGamhan (1959) [8:30]
Nomos No.4 for Piano and Orchestra (1957/8) [13:11]
Mise Éire: Orchestral Suite (1959) [8:52]
Mná na hÉireann (arr. Noel Kelehan) [2:52]
Cathal Breslin (piano); Seán Ó Sé (vocal); RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra; RTÉ Concert Orchestra; Robert Houlihan, Proinnsías Ó Duinn
rec. National Concert Hall, Dublin, 30 May-2 June 2011 (Overture, The Banks of Sulán, Nomos No.1, Seoladh na nGamhan, Nomos No.4); RTÉ Studio 1, Dublin, 10-12 November 2004 (Mise Éire) and (live) University College Cork, 24 June 1999 (Mná na hÉireann)
RTÉ LYRIC FM CD136 [67:14]
Seán Ó Riada led a tragically short life. This did not prevent him from leaving a substantial catalogue of which the release under review provides a fair survey. He was much interested in Irish folk music of which he made a number of arrangements. The genre often informs his concert music as can be heard in some of the works recorded here such as The Banks of Sulán, Seoladh na nGamhan (“The Herding of the Calves”) and parts of the score for the film Mise Éire.
Ó Riada's first major score Overture Olynthiac is totally devoid of any folk-inspired elements. This short work by a young composer displays a remarkable orchestral flair. One cannot but wonder why such an attractive piece is so rarely heard. I sincerely hope that this superb performance will encourage some wider, hugely deserved exposure. By the way, I wish the sleeve-notes had told us what “Olynthiac” means although this does not seem essential for one's enjoyment of this brightly ebullient music.
The Banks of Sulán and Seoladh na nGamhan are clearly folk-influenced but here the approach to folk-song is somewhat different from that of, say, Vaughan Williams, Moeran or Grainger. Although both pieces are overtly pastoral in mood they evince an inner tension that one would not readily associate with folk music. This is particularly clear in the rather tense central section of The Banks of Sulán. Seoladh na nGamhan, too, is far from simple or relaxed.
Ó Riada planned to compose a series of seven pieces sharing the title of Nomos. He managed to complete four. Besides the ones recorded here mention can be made of Nomos No.2 (1957/63) for baritone, chorus and orchestra and Nomos No.6 (1966) for orchestra. Nomos No.1 and Nomos No.4 are purely abstract pieces of music with no folk influence whatsoever. Indeed Hercules Dux Ferrariae: Nomos No.1 for String Orchestra (to give the piece its full title) is rather complex: two dodecaphonic tone rows rub shoulders with a theme from a work by Josquin des Prés. It may be described as a theme and variations. The brilliant, assured and varied string writing brings Britten's Frank Bridge Variations to mind. By the way record collectors of old may remember that a recording of this work was available on Claddagh during the LP era. Nomos No.4 is a diptych for piano and orchestra. It’s stylistically fairly close to Bartók, and particularly the Second and Third Piano Concertos. The first movement Andante opens with a forceful dialogue between percussion and piano whereas the second movement Allegro is primarily quick and rhythmic. A shortened re-statement of the opening rushes the music to three emphatic exclamations after which the music tiptoes away enigmatically. These two works amply demonstrate what the composer might have been about had he lived longer.
The score for the film Mise Éire is understandably simpler and more straightforward than both Nomoi. It’s deftly done and the composer's reliance on folk tunes is never overdone. There is much imaginative scoring throughout and the opening tune (Róisín Dubh) is likely to stay with you for a long time. It reappears in various guises later in the suite.
This most welcome release is filled-up with a live recording of Seán Ó Sé - a great friend of the composer - singing a folk-song tastefully arranged for orchestra by Noel Kelehan from the composer's original piano accompaniment. The tune sounds familiar to me. I may have heard it many years ago on a cassette of The Chieftains that I bought in Ireland. This short bit of music is quite beautiful and very moving.
Performances and recording are up to what one has come to expect from RTÉ Lyric FM. Everyone concerned responds with utmost conviction to Ó Riada's marvellous music. There is a great deal to enjoy here and I hope that RTÉ will not be too long in releasing more of this composer's orchestral music. Besides the aforementioned Nomos No.2 and Nomos No.6 there is also a Triptyque pour orchestre symphonique composed in 1960 in homage to three French painters.
This very fine release provides the best possible introduction to the music of a composer whose untimely death was a great loss not only for Irish music but also for contemporary music at large.