Celine Byrne

A 'delightfully informal' performance from the soprano is the highlight of the latest Newry Chamber Music concert

Nestling in a secluded clearing on the site of an ancient oak wood at Derrymore, County Down is the Meeting House of the Religious Society of Friends, better known to many as Quakers. The squat, simple structure, hewn from Bessbrook granite a century and a half ago, makes a beautiful location for Newry Chamber Music's summer concert.

Wood-panelled and unostentatious, the hall is full and buzzing. No wonder – soprano Celine Byrne, a rising star in the younger generation of Irish classical performers, is giving a recital. She’s partnered by Camlough pianist David Quigley, who, with his sister Joanne, is the moving spirit behind the excellent range of concerts NCM is in the habit of providing.

Byrne opens with an operatic section, and hits the ground running with a dramatically charged account of ‘Song to the Moon’ from Dvorak’s Rusalka. No sense of easing her way gently into the evening here – Byrne is already nailing Dvorak’s soaringly rhapsodic melodies, and pinning the audience’s ears back with the raw emotion of her singing.

The voice is specially rich in its middle section, and has distinctive mezzo colorations in that register. The top is firm and penetrating, and though her trilling in Gounod’s ‘Jewel Song’ is not as clearly etched out as it might be, this is a strong opening section.

Unusually, Byrne shares the programme with Quigley, and it’s a very effective arrangement. Quigley’s first set opens with a lively, insightful traversal of Haydn’s 'Andante' and 'Variations in F minor', a work that alternates gravity and soberness of demeanour with an element of playful skittishness. Quigley is bristlingly alive to every twist and nuance in a performance that’s by turns entertaining and absorbing.

Brahms follows, the first two Intermezzi from the 'Op. 118' set, where Quigley’s naturally fluid sense of rubato and his predilection for grand romantic rhetoric are a major asset.

Part one ends with more Brahms from Byrne, a sweepingly declamatory account of his great song 'Immer leiser wird mein Schlummer' particularly impressing. The hall is buzzing even louder as tea and biscuits are taken by the audience at the interval.

Part two brings mainly lighter material, though Harty’s 'Sea Wrack' and Wexford composer TC Kelly’s 'The Mother' – one of the few classical songs written specifically about the Troubles – both major on the kind of emotional turbulence that Byrne is particularly skilled at conveying.

If, overall, there’s a relative shortage of genuinely soft singing in Byrne’s recital – technically the voice immediately seems less well supported, the tone paler, when she tries it – nobody is complaining as she caps the evening with a clutch of songs from the shows.

These include a sing-along to ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, from Carousel, in the course of which Byrne circles the meeting room with a broad grin on her face, entreating audience members to make an even heartier contribution.

That’s one of the reasons why this richly gifted, unassuming young soprano is fast becoming a national favourite: she makes the classics fun to listen to and accessible, without sacrificing her high artistic standards and credibility.

Throughout the evening, Byrne chats in a delightfully informal fashion to the audience, a gift given to few classical performers. For once we know exactly what is going on in the songs and arias (in Czech, Italian, French, German and English), and it makes a palpable difference in raising levels of empathy and involvement.

Quigley’s accompaniments are exemplary in their scale, supportiveness and sensitivity. He and his sister are putting wonderfully high quality classical events on in the Newry area, and the recently revamped website of Newry Chamber Music is well worth keeping a weather eye on as you plan your concert-going outings for the 2013/14 season.