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Kevin O'CONNELL (b.1958)
North (1997/8) [20:01]
Four Orchestral Pieces (2003/6) [29:47]
Symphony (2007/10) [28:22]
RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra/Gavin Maloney
rec. National Concert Hall, Dublin, April 2010 and April 2011
RTÉ LYRIC FM CD144 [78:09]

This new release in RTÉ Lyric FM's Composers of Ireland series is entirely devoted to three fairly recent orchestral works by Kevin O'Connell. It's a generous collection and comprises three substantial works spanning the last twelve years or so of his composing career.

North, completed in 1998, is the earliest one here. It is a diptych consisting of two contrasted, though thematically interrelated panels. A few basic elements are stated in the early stages of the first panel and developed and/or varied. Jennifer McCay states that the second panel may even be heard as a kind of variation of the first one. Again, according to Jennifer McCay's detailed notes, the opening of the work also quotes from Sibelius' Fourth Symphony; I am sorry to say that I did not spot it by myself. The first panel is mostly slow, albeit not consistently so, whereas the second is much more like an extended Scherzo that ends in an abrupt way and inconclusively.

In spite of its title and of the fact that each movement bears a separate dedication, Four Orchestral Pieces is again a much more integrated and carefully worked-out work than might appear at first. Quoting Jennifer McCay again : “Each piece bears a separate dedication. This fact seems to underline the idea of independent pieces. The integrated thematic treatment similar to that employed in North, however, suggests otherwise.” The first piece, Vestiges is the longest and possibly the most varied and may sometimes suggest a sort of kaleidoscope. The music is held together by a flute ritornello heard at the outset. The second piece is titled Slåttar and is a version for strings and timpani of a slightly earlier piece for solo double bass. Slåttar is a Norwegian stomping dance one hears in works by Grieg and Harald Saeverud. As might be expected, it opens vigorously with the basses much to the fore before landing in a short eerie section eventually capped by an energetic reprise of the slåttar tune. The third piece bears the curious title of Tubilustrium: the name of the Roman ceremony in which the trumpets of Mars were purified: I draw this information from the insert notes. This is scored mostly for brass and percussion and unfolds as a sort of funeral march. It is dedicated to the memory of one of the composer's friends, the composer Minna Keal. The final movement Prelude with Carillon is again scored for full orchestra. It opens a shade hesitantly but the music progressively grows in intensity although it lacks the cumulative energy one might have expected at this stage in the whole work. It nevertheless achieves a climax capped by a slow, soft coda in which the music tiptoes away almost unnoticed.

The most recent work here is the Symphony completed in 2010. It is laid-out as a more or less traditional symphony in four movements with a Scherzo placed third. It however differs from the traditional pattern in that the slow movement is relatively short and the Scherzo somewhat more developed than usual. The Symphony opens with “a chirping oboe figure based on a minor third. This figure is echoed at the end of the first movement, in the long solo flute at the start of the slow movement and in the finale's opening violin melody” (Jennifer McCay). The first movement, roughly in sonata form, has energy and vigour. It nevertheless ends quite abruptly. The slow movement unfolds menacingly until the Scherzo erupts forcefully. The opening of the final movement is quite beautiful with an angular violin melody in dense counterpoint which other instruments soon join in with mounting tension. A general pause is reached after which the music builds-up again to the strangely inconclusive close. To my mind, this last gesture is the only weakness in what is arguably a very fine piece.

This is again a very strong release in what I hope will be a continuing series devoted to Irish composers. Recording and performances made in the presence of the composer are really very fine whereas Jennifer McCay's detailed and informative notes which I have shamelessly plundered are an added asset to a fine release.

Hubert Culot



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