The Irish Piano

'A triumph of outstandingly alert and sensitive artistry' from Belfast pianist Michael McHale features original takes on old classics

Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, Rachmaninov, Schubert. Most young pianists, offered the chance at recording a debut album, will instinctively gravitate towards the established classics for repertoire, keen to pitch their talent against the finest, and establish their artistic credentials, in music of proven worth and wide familiarity.

Belfast pianist Michael McHale is different. On his new album, The Irish Piano, he enterprisingly takes the road less travelled, assembling a fascinating collection of short pieces by composers who are either native Irish, or have a strong Irish connection.

No fewer than five of the 12 composers featured are contemporary, making a strong statement about McHale’s commitment to exposing the works of living purveyors of the Irish classical piano tradition to broader public scrutiny.

McHale gives a CD debut to two pieces from Belfast composer Philip Hammond’s recent cycle Miniatures and Modulations, based on tunes collected by Edward Bunting at the Belfast Harp Festival of 1792.

Hammond will surely be delighted by the snap and swagger with which McHale dispatches 'The Beardless Boy', and the rhythmic alacrity he brings to the nervily repeated syncopations of 'John O’Reilly the Active'. McHale plans to record the complete Miniatues and Modulations sequence eventually: these are teasing tasters of what will be an important and exciting project.

Bill Whelan’s 'The Currach', depicting the voyage of a small rowing boat off the west coast of Ireland, showcases McHale’s sharp instincts as a storyteller, the joyful bobbing of the spray-tossed outer sections contrasting with a more contemplative central episode, flecked with delicate arabesquerie.

Both Donnacha Dennehy’s 'North Circular' and Garrett Sholdice’s 'Am Koppenplatz' are more introverted pieces, the former a brief study in Lisztian filigree, the Sholdice a striking evocation of a desolate Berlin square, eliciting from McHale playing of rapt concentration, the music’s silent spaces tingling with mystery and apprehension.

McHale’s exquisitely tender renditions of two Nocturnes by John Field make it easy to appreciate why the Dublin-born composer was greatly admired by his contemporaries, Liszt and Chopin (who borrowed the idea of a ‘nocturne’ from him). It’s so easy to over-milk this type of music for cheaply expressive purposes: McHale’s performances are a model of taste and cultured discrimination.

In a lighter vein are the skittish 'Mazurka-étude' by William Wallace, its volleys of lightly articulated repeated notes giving McHale’s fingers a tricksy work-out. Percy Grainger’s 'Molly on the Shore', a medley of two reels from County Cork, bounds along ebulliently, McHale catching vividly the madcap element in the Australian composer’s hyperactive musical personality.

Running through this outstanding recital, and in some ways at the heart of it, are McHale’s own arrangements of traditional Irish melodies, music clearly central to his personal musical journey.

There are four of these. 'She Moved Through the Fair' counterposes a gently undulating left-hand figuration with a fractured, pointillistic examination of the melody at the upper end of the keyboard. The depth of field created lends a visionary, almost hallucinatory quality to McHale’s haunting setting.

That same sense of a dark past speaking eloquently across the centuries to the present is distilled in 'Cailin ó cois tSuire Mé' (‘I am the girl from the banks of the river Suir’), and 'The Coulin', where McHale’s unravelling of the right-hand melody has an alluringly pearly lustre.

In 'My Lagan Love', McHale comes home to his native Belfast, the main melody this time voiced principally by the left hand. Ethereal note clusters toll evocatively in the distance, fading eventually to silence, the narrator (as Joseph Campbell’s lyric puts it) ‘leaving love and light to feel the wind of longing blow, from out the dark of night'.

The RTÉ Lyric FM engineering team has captured the Model D Steinway used for the recording very sympathetically, the natural warmth of the ecclesiastical acoustic (St Peter’s Church of Ireland, Drogheda) leavened by a clean, clear focus on the fine textural and rhythmic detail of McHale’s playing.

At a time of extreme constriction in the classical music industry, RTÉ is to be strongly congratulated on giving McHale carte blanche to programme such an unusual, absorbingly interesting recital. It’s a triumph of outstandingly alert and sensitive artistry, and should be in every piano lover’s stocking this Christmas.