Pianist and RIAM Keyboard Faculty member, Hugh Tinney, recently gave a recital of 20th century Irish piano works as part of the Composing the Island Festival at the NCH. In the first part of this blog post, he describes his early encounters with contemporary Irish music. (Part 2 to follow next week!)

The recent Composing the Island centennial retrospective at the National Concert Hall in Dublin, which spanned almost three weeks in September and presented a huge number of Irish compositions dating from the past one hundred years, was an enormous project from the outset.  Sponsored generously by Bord Na Móna, it used the considerable performing resources of the RTÉ orchestras and other performing groups, along with many other Irish performers, to provide a unique and extensive survey of the field.  It was so successful that people were soon heard saying that this should be repeated periodically in the future.


I was approached by Simon Taylor, the NCH’s CEO, about a year ago to see if I would be part of the retrospective by giving a solo piano recital of works with a distinctly retrospective make-up.  Simon told me that, as he already had some concerts booked that would focus on the contemporary, twenty-first century side of things, what he was looking for from me was a look back over the twentieth century.  He suggested it would be great if works representing perhaps 6 or 7 different decades of the past century were included.  At the same time, he didn’t want the programme to become too “bitty” by focussing only on a lot of short works!

Well, this was a challenge. As a young Irish pianist emerging from the “Feis Ceoil years”, it would be fair to say that I had no particular interest in Contemporary Composition.  I had quickly established (without actually trying it) that I myself had no urge to compose;  my principal interests away from the keyboard were Mathematics and Science.  I loved playing the piano but I was very happy to explore, as listener and performer, the existing Western canon from Bach to the twentieth century.  For me at that age, the only twentieth century piano composers of note were Debussy, Ravel, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev, Bartok and Shostakovich.  It would take external pressure to encourage me to add Irish compositions to my pianistic collection from around my mid-twenties on.

hugh-tinney-prog6-copyA bit before that, I was starting to encounter more of the twentieth century piano output. Colman Pearce, then conductor of the RTÉ Symphony Orchestra, invited me to perform Bartók’s Third Piano Concerto with the Orchestra in 1979 (I was twenty and still in Trinity College Dublin working at Mathematics); and in the same period, he invited me to join the Orchestra in a performance of Andrzej Panufnik’s Sinfonia di Sfere (composed in 1975) – I found both the experience and the work itself exciting and novel, and it was indeed new to be working with a living composer who was present at rehearsals and performance!

In my first few years studying piano in London, I focussed on acquiring as large a repertoire as possible, but on the whole I didn’t push any deeper into the twentieth century than I had before.  An exception was in 1981 when I learnt Michael Tippett’s Third Sonata (composed in 1972), a very challenging work that I perhaps wisely left on the drawing board.  A work that impressed me in 1980 was the Sonata by the Northern Irish composer Howard Ferguson, presented by the young Barry Douglas at the Wigmore Hall as part of the festival “A Sense of Ireland” mounted in London that spring.

hugh-tinney-prog5Eventually, in 1983, the demand came for me to “play something Irish” when I was preparing a concert for the BRT Belgian radio in Brussels.  I traipsed up to the top of Liberty Hall where, in the Association of Irish Composers’ office, I was able to get some scores of Seoirse Bodley, James Wilson and others.  Of course, I was also aware of the generation of distinguished pianist composers a little older than me – Philip Martin, John Gibson and Raymond Deane.  Eventually I chose Philip Martin’s suite Masquerade for the BRT concert.  Another important resource for me was the discovery (thanks to my aunt, the Irish Ambassador Mary Tinney) of an NIRC LP recording of Charles Lynch, the doyen of Irish pianists of his day, playing exclusively Irish piano compositions.

hugh-tinney-prog1The next time I was called upon to produce an Irish work (this time an Irish encore was requested in advance for a Japanese concert in 1986), I chose Brian Boydell’s Dance for an Ancient Ritual which I had first discovered on Lynch’s LP. From then on, it seemed that every ten years or so, something external came up which pushed me to re-engage with contemporary Irish composition.  In the mid-nineties, the L’Imaginaire Irlandais festival in France motivated new explorations; on the foot of some visits to the Contemporary Music Centre (CMC), I began learning solo works by Raymond Deane and Ian Wilson, which I later performed in Caen and Paris.  Deane’s By the clear dark fountain I had first come across in a talk by Eve O’Kelly of CMC in 1994 at a Limerick conference of the European Piano Teachers Association, at which I had been invited to perform (I was not yet a teacher!) – I had immediately “bonded” with the piece and would later record it along with its fellow After-pieces on the Black Box label.  Other recordings of Irish music I made in the 1990’s included Aloys Fleischmann’s Piano Quintet (with the RTÉ Vanbrugh Quartet) and A Sheaf of Irish Songs (with mezzo-soprano Bernadette Greevy).  Both recordings were for the Marco Polo label of the Naxos group, which at the time had a significant contract with RTÉ to record Irish music.

Two newly-commissioned works that I premièred on tours late in the decade were Donnacha Dennehy’s Pluck, Stroke and Hammer (with the Vanbrughs) and Limena (with the Irish Chamber Orchestra).  The latter is a concerto for piano and strings by Ian Wilson, in which the strings use practice mutes throughout!  The version for solo piano, Lim, would eventually make it into the programme for last month’s Composing the Island recital and being an extended work of nearly twenty minutes, it was one of the programme’s bastions against the “too bitty” risk!

To be continued next week … 

In the second part of this blog post, Hugh Tinney continues his account of his experiences of contemporary Irish music and discusses the programme for the Composing the Island recital of 20th century Irish piano music.