LIVE REVIEW Irish Chamber Orchestra Wigmore Hall, London

The Irish renaissance continues apace. Ten years ago, a London concert by an Irish orchestra, with a work by an Irish composer as its centrepiece, would have been a striking oddity. Not now, though. There was no special publicity drive connected with the Irish Chamber Orchestra's appearance last Tuesday, but it managed to fill the Wigmore Hall, and the applause, both for the players and for composer Gerald Barry's La Jalousie Taciturne, was enthusiastic.

It was, on the whole, a well-deserved reception. The final work, Mendelssohn's Eighth String Symphony, was a clever choice. This breathtakingly precocious piece (written when Mendelssohn was an incredible 13) shows off the different sections of the ensemble as challengingly as any modern concerto for orchestra. In the slow movement, the violins are silent, and the violas and cellos are divided: any weak player would soon stand out. But this was pure enjoyment, as were the brilliant fast movements. The whole thing was brought off with energy, flair and firm technique.

The two concertos in the first part were a somewhat different story. The orchestra was first rate, as was leader Fionnuala Hunt as soloist in Bach's Concerto for Two Violins. There were many telling details of phrasing and articulation in her performance. But she was ill-matched with her solo partner, the more senior Franco Gulli. Gulli has a reputation as a fine teacher, but his playing here was unsubtle, sometimes aggressive, and in the finale there were several jarring instances of what sounded like memory lapses - except that Gulli had the music in front of him. Perhaps that's why he put his glasses on for the next work, Haydn's solo Violin Concerto in C - no mistakes this time, but a performance that lacked grace and lightness of touch. This may not be great Haydn, but it deserves better.

With the ferocious opening of Gerald Barry's La Jalousie Taciturne, Hunt and the ICO sounded as though they were determined to put all this behind them. Wild, fiercely dancing figures set the scene, some of them clearly derived from Chopin, though with an impressive overlay of dense dissonance. A similar short bacchanal ends the piece, but, in between, the mood is more inward-looking - the "sullen" anger and thwarted desire indicated by the title. For more conservative listeners, this would have been modernism par excellence - or par atrocite, if such an expression exists. Except that, by the standards of the Sixties and Seventies, it wouldn't have been judged "modern" at all. Often it sounded more like the violent atonal rage and gloom of the late Shostakovich - parts of the 14th Symphony, or the last quartets. But it also had a great deal of Shostakovich's directness, his obvious need to communicate - which must go some way to explaining its evident success with the audience.

The ICO must take some of the credit too. They threw themselves into the music with enthusiasm, though it was always a focused enthusiasm. I found it gripping from start to finish. Someone should invite the ICO back again soon - on condition that they bring more interesting new Irish music.

Stephen Johnson

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