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John KINSELLA (b.1932)
Symphony No. 5 'The 1916 Poets' (1992) [37.31]
Gerard O'Connor (baritone); Bill Golding (speaker)
RTE National Symphony Orchestra/Colman Pearce
rec. 18 February 1994, National Concert Hall, Dublin
Symphony No. 10 (2010) [30.00]
Irish Chamber Orchestra/Gábor Takács-Nagy
rec. 11 February 2012, Royal Dublin Society Concert Hall

If you had known the music of Dublin-born John Kinsella in the period around 1970 you may well have associated him with the avant-garde. By 1977, after completing his emotionally volatile Third String Quartet (recorded on Chandos CHAN 9295 by the Vanbrugh Quartet) which uses a quite personal form of serial technique, he had a Schoenbergian crisis in reverse. He found that much of the new music he heard did not chime in with his real nature. Incidentally, at that point in his career the English composer Howard Ferguson had decided to compose no more. In 1979 Kinsella took up his pen again and four or five years later completed his First Symphony, a brave move. There have been ten symphonies therefore in thirty years.

I was at first a little surprised to read on the back of the CD that Kinsella "is the most important Irish symphonist since Stanford". I wondered where the highly original Frank Corcoran (b.1944) fitted in (Marco Polo 8.225107) or Gerard Victory (1921-1995) but the fact is that Kinsella has already composed ten symphonies, possibly with more to come and they are mostly 'proper' symphonies.

Kinsella has been represented on disc before, for example the Symphonies 3 and 4 were recorded on Marco Polo 8.223766 in the early 1990s. Sadly I have not heard these but will now try to search them out. Hubert Culot reviewed an RTE Lyric FM CD of Kinsella's Symphonies 6 and 7 not so long ago.

The Symphony No. 5 is a big work for a large orchestra, baritone and speaker. It's subtitled 'The 1916 Poets' and the three poets in question are Thomas McDonagh, Joseph Plunkett and Patrick Pearse each of whom was killed by the British in 1916 during the 'uprising'. Before you start to think that this is a political symphony with a 'message' then let me reassure you that it is no such thing. Movement 1 sets the scene.

It begins with two gentle horns emphasising musically the tonal area to be explored but also setting a conciliatory mood. Soon at the allegro the atmosphere changes. The spoken voice emerges with 'The Stars Sang in God's Garden' by Plunkett "For many live that one may die". This is contrasted with MacDonagh's very personal poem 'Wishes for my son' as his child embarks on life's journey; one in which, according to Plunkett "the sun rose as blood /it showed the Reaper, the dead Christ". The second poem is sung except for the penultimate verse, which is spoken. This adds dramatic and unexpected weight but the movement ends in an unsettled peace.

The two middle movements together are shorter overall than the first. The second brings the listener MacDonagh's poem 'In an Island' in the form of a desolate recitative. The third, which acts as a welcome scherzo in a work of rather unremitting seriousness, sets Plunkett's 'See the Crocus' Golden Cup', a joyous springtime poem. The finale is longer than the first three movements combined and uses six poems all by Patrick Pearse with two central ones spoken over an orchestral soundscape.

I am dubious about the spoken passages. The case for an overall symphonic argument is well made by the notes but the fact is that symphonic development is halted by a film score approach over which the melodramatic presentation of the texts is spoken. It creates an almost Disney-esque effect. The composer in his essay comments that "Interspacing the spoken words among the baritone settings was a way of personalising the three poets and bringing closer to the listener". Yes, but I'm not sure if it works.

I like Bill Golding's timbre and clarity but I'm sorry to say that Gerard O'Connor's baritone does not appeal. I find his vibrato at times disconcerting, his diction not totally convincing and his upper register not consistently well placed.

The Symphony No. 10 was not written to a commission and the composer clearly enjoyed working at it. It opens with solo clarinet line which is also used similarly at the start of the second movement and ideas from it haunt the work throughout. The superbly documented booklet with its musical quotes and essay by musicologist and composer Séamus de Barra guides you through the listening process in both symphonies in some considerable detail. The opening for both symphonies is quoted, and here we also have a few bars of the ensuing Allegro for No. 10. This has an exciting, driving sense of clear direction. It is astonishing to learn that the work is scored, quite deliberately according to the composers' own booklet note 'Setting about the Symphony', for standard classical orchestra. Kinsella creates passages of great power and energy in both the outer movements, the third having touches of Sibelius. The middle one de Barra describes as 'enigmatic'. I would also add the words mysterious, evocative and with a sense of 'Celtic', not twilight, but morning freshness which clouds over, brightens and darkens again. A wonderful sound-world.

These symphonies were apparently recorded live but you wouldn't know it, the audience noises being non-existent. The sound is clear but sometimes a little congested at climactic points. The orchestral work is outstanding especially in the demanding string writing and Colman Pearce shows an in-depth understanding of the demands of these scores.

I wonder if Toccata will be treating us to more symphonies by Kinsella especially as these were recorded some time ago. There may be more waiting in the wings. I do hope so as, despite my reservations about the Fifth, Kinsella's is a voice with something to say and the determination to say it.

Gary Higginson



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