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 second part of this blog post, he 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.  

hugh-tinney-prog4Back to the past!  I had a one-off opportunity to play with the Chieftains at the RDS in 1995, and while I crossed over into their territory with Carolan’s Concerto and Drowsy Maggie, we pooled resources also in E.J. Moeran’s An Irish Love Song which Paddy Moloney rightly introduced by its source name as “Jimmy Mo Mhíle Stór”.

The broader question of contemporary music in general as modern art is a vexed one, and I was not immune to it.  While some of the public take to modern art in all its forms like ducks to water, there are others for whom it remains problematic.  A very good friend of mine speaks of preferring her composers “well dead”!  Experiences such as the West Cork Chamber Music Festival in Bantry in the late 1990’s had introduced me, as a listener, to exciting and intense music by György Ligeti, Alfred Schnittke, John Cage and others.  And in 2002, Catherine Leonard and I recorded a complete CD of piano solo and violin and piano duo music by Ian Wilson on the Riverrun label.

Nonetheless, by the mid-2000’s, my contact with contemporary music, Irish and international, had once more become more distant and occasional.  Then one day in 2005, a CD popped through my letterbox.  It came from composer Siobhán Cleary who was setting up concerts under the new auspice Ireland Promoting New Music.  The CD contained an eclectic collection of piano pieces by nine composers, including amongst others Cage, Ligeti, Tom Johnson, Gerald Barry, Iannis Xenakis and Giacinto Scelsi.  This collection intrigued me and I eventually performed the programme twice in Dublin, at the National Gallery in 2006 and a year later in Trinity College.  This “push” re-kindled my interest in the field, and with help from an Arts Council Bursary, I spent some years devoting time to learning and performing works by Morton Feldman, Cage, Ligeti, Thomas Adès and others. From that time on, I have retained an ongoing interest in exploring the “rich and strange” field of contemporary music; it is an interest that brings me great stimulation, a musical equivalent perhaps to the wonder and excitement of exoplanetary astronomers these days as they discover thousands of new and strange planets orbiting distant stars.

noctuaryIn compiling the programme “The Irish Piano” for the Composing the Island retrospective, most of my choices followed one way or another from the influences and encounters recorded above.  I learnt the Fleischmann Sreath (Suite) for a centenary memorial in 2010 of this influential Cork-based musician.  The Raymond Deane pieces included came into being when I commissioned him to write a set of twelve pieces called Noctuary; the whole set was issued in 2014 on the downloads-only label Resonus Classics.  Of the four Composing the Island programme items that either draw from recognisably traditional Irish sources or seem to atmospherically echo them, Jane O’Leary’s Forgotten Worlds was unique there in employing “on the string” harp-like techniques, while the Aislingí (Visions) by Seoirse Bodley represent a fascinating attempt to create a new, specifically Irish musical genre – the feat of genre-creation itself recalling John Field’s creation of the Nocturnes for piano nearly two hundred years earlier.  Other items such as Siobhán Cleary’s Suantraí, with its dedication “For the Magdalens”,  and Ian Wilson’s Lim, whose central section was being written when news of the Omagh bombing came through, reflect on darker aspects of our heritage.

The Composing the Island concert was also my first opportunity to perform in the recently restored and-upgraded Kevin Barry Recital Room at the NCH.  It proved an enjoyable encounter, with a jam-packed audience dotted with a healthy number of composers!  As with the entire retrospective series, the concert was recorded by RTÉ Lyric FM for future broadcast and for archival purposes, which is great.  It was a remarkable experience for me to play, for the first time in my life, a recital of over two hours, including interval, of Irish works by a total of eleven Irish composers – Brian Boydell, Seoirse Bodley, Aloys Fleischmann, Ian Wilson, Siobhán Cleary, E. J. Moeran (Irish by association & by years living in Kenmare), Howard Ferguson, Gerard Victory, Philip Martin, Jane O’Leary and Raymond Deane.  In the end, I had exceeded Simon’s request (might as well be hung for a sheep as for a lamb!) by including works composed in all the past ten decades from the 1920s up to and including this decade, the 2010s.


About thirty to forty minutes of the repertoire I learnt specially for the event, so there were plenty personal first performances there.  As always in recitals, some pieces come out better than others.  In this one, I particularly enjoyed Boydell’s Dance for an Ancient Ritual, Bodley’s Aisling No. 5, Cleary’s Suantraí, Ferguson’s Five Bagatelles, Victory’s Prelude and Toccata, Martin’s The Rainbow Comes and Goes, O’Leary’s Forgotten Worlds (including using the technique of plucking strings inside the piano for the first time in my life!), and Deane’s Minerva’s Owl.  There was a great sense in the Kevin Barry Recital Room of a journey shared between me and the audience, as each work and composer made way for the next – a brief pianistic history of the past hundred years of Irish musical composition.

© Hugh Tinney 2016