A J Potter M station -----> Classical Music Reviews


- Orchestral Music
Sinfonia “De Profundis”, Finnegan’s Wake, Variations on a Popular Tune
National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland
Conducted by Robert Houlihan
1. Finnegan’s Wake 2’45”
2. Fantasia Gaelach No 1 8’31”
3. Variations on a Popular Tune 8’56”
4. Overture to a Kitchen Comedy 9’32”
Sinfonia “De Profundis” 31’44”
5. Moderato 6’00”
6. Tempo di Valse: Lento 5’49”
7. Adagio 8’43”
8. Vivace 5’06”
9. Epilogue 6’06”
Recorded in The National Concert Hall, Dublin on 3 & 4 June, 1999
Marco Polo 8.225158
TPT: 61’28”

Marco Polo’s innovative series of the music of Irish composers has been one of its more notable achievements of recent years. For a country of small population, and culturally dominated by its large neighbour for so many years, Irish composition has always managed to be a remarkably strong feature of the cultural psyche. Indeed, even at the height of British domination, the sense of ‘Irishness’ was never far from the heart of compositional activity of composers working in that country. A J Potter, born in Belfast in 1918, grew up in a firmly British dominated part of Ireland and undoubtedly absorbed much of what was best in British composition in the first half of the 20th century. But he also managed to carve out a niche as a successful arranger of Irish tunes for orchestral performance as well as achieving some remarkably original thoughts in serious composition.

Both aspects of this activity are represented on this Marco Polo disc, which finds the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland in particularly fine form under Robert Houlihan. In the 1950s the Minister in charge of broadcasting in Ireland, the redoubtable Erskine Childers, made much funding available for the commissioning of high-quality orchestral and choral arrangements of Irish folk music to be broadcast by the state broadcasting organ Radio Telefis Éireann (RTÉ) and many of these were entrusted to Potter. His dynamic abilities as an orchestrater shine through in works like Finnegan’s Wake - originally written for wind and percussion, but further arranged in several versions including that for full orchestra recorded here. From the same era come the Gaelic Fantasias; tone poems making much use of well-known Irish airs.

The major work on this disc is from a later period and has quite different feel. Written in 1968, and first performed to unanimous acclaim the following year, the Sinfonia “De Profundis” is a major serious work that his well worth more frequent performances. This shows Potter not just as a colourful weaver of folk song orchestrations but also as a major symphonist with a broad sweep of outlook and a commanding control of structural unity. The title is that of psalm 130 “Out of the deep have I cried unto thee, O Lord; Lord hear my prayer” and this sense of the despairing individual provides the psychological basis for the whole work. Even the second movement waltz is precarious dance. Throughout the five movements the old tune Remember God’s goodness, O thou man provides material for variation, which, at the climax of the epilogue, is transformed into the tune of the metrical psalm 124 Nisi quia Dominus “If God had not supported us”.

This climactic epilogue forms the high point of the whole disc and produces some startlingly powerful playing from the National Symphony Orchestra, a group who can be very good when they are good, but can also produce some quite indifferent playing when they are not. Robert Houlihan has a fine grasp of the architectural dimensions of this work and, while the playing in the earlier pieces is also fine, it is undoubtedly the sinfonia that allows him to bring the best out of the orchestra. This is very impressive and Marco Polo deserves success for the commendable efforts made to bring this all too infrequently heard composer to a wider audience.

(Peter Wells )

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