The awesome noise of victory

Radio 3 round-up

Gerald Barry's The Conquest of Ireland is no laughing matter. It begins with the bass soloist rapid-firing volleys of semiquavers in unison with a bass clarinet. The tempo marking is the same as Chopin's second Etude (the chromatic one for the weak fingers of the right hand), so the composer's instruction to be "frenetic" is sort of reassuring. Barry has an acute feeling for texts: words and music, for him, relate on a deeper level than merely a respectful underlay. The Conquest is a book by the 12th- century writer Giraldus Cambrensis, who spoke of the "quivering measures" of Irish music, its "concord achieved through elements discordant", as if foretelling his namesake's setting eight centuries later. Barry chose mostly Giraldus's devastating, gimlet-eyed lowdowns on his fellow soldiers. Typically, the words are often thrown away as the music cranks its inexorable course regardless. Everyone is given a very hard time indeed. The BBC Symphony Orchestra could scarcely fail to make an awesome noise, and buried deep in some of the aural scrums, a good few atrocities might have been committed for all I know. But with a score, you could also pick out a lot of staunchly played detail, and Matthew Richardson delivered his part with considerable swagger.

The Conquest of Ireland formed part of a characteristically mixed bag in Hear and Now last Friday night. There was Penderecki's Clarinet Quartet, sounding a bit like Schoenberg, and his Sinfonietta, arranged from his String Trio, which sounded like any number of neo-Classical composers. Then there were two totally dissimilar movements from an ongoing project for a chamber group called Hand Guns, by the young Scottish composer Gordon MacPherson. The first piece was obviously designed to be mean and nasty, school of Steve Martland. The second was more interesting and ambiguous, inspired by the shockingly sexy film music of John Barry, of Goldfinger fame. Were MacPherson to take John Barry too seriously, or imitate him too well, he would be lost - but in this flirtatious number he seemed to keep his head, yet give in just enough to make it enjoyable.

Sunday evening brought the usual repeat of the preceding Monday lunchtime recital from St John's, Smith Square, and last week, a real treasure in the Piano Sonata by Paul Dukas. It was played with tremendous panache by Artur Pizarro, who added Liszt's sixth Hungarian Rhapsody as an encore. This was really something after all the effort involved in the Sonata. With four movements lasting some 45 minutes, it's really a symphony for piano, and perhaps Yan Pascal Tortelier would like to make an orchestral version and record it. It's also the only piano sonata to have come out of the Cesar Franck circle, and worthy of its unique position. The first movement smoulders on the embers of the simplest possible motif, while the finale is a combative sonata form which splendidly delivers all the expected great moments. As you would expect, from the composer of L'Apprenti Sorcier, there's an electric scherzo, which instead of a conventional sort of trio section, has a slow contrapuntal contrast that sounds as if it might grow prematurely into a finale, though it doesn't. The slow second movement was the only disappointment, because the emotional temperature dropped and its rather weakly sentimental material seemed spun out for the sake of it - of all the movements, this was the one in particular which would benefit from orchestral colour.

Still, Pizarro ought to make a CD of the Sonata as soon as possible, and with his capacity to assimilate, perhaps he could be persuaded to couple it with Dukas's almost contemporaneous Variations, Interlude et Final (sur un theme de Rameau).

ADRIAN JACK

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