The latest contribution by the Fidelio Trio to an already impressive list of recordings of Irish contemporary composers is dedicated to the music of Gerald Barry. Focusing on chamber works with piano, the release contains a broad spread of compositions from the late 1970s until relatively recently, most of which have never been recorded previously.
Perhaps the most compelling quality of Gerald Barry’s music is the way that it can – particularly through its prioritisation of melody – cut straight to the point without any superfluous decoration. One thinks of moments like D’Esperaudieu’s aria ‘White Bird Featherless’ in The Intelligence Park or, more recently, the naive beauty of the Viola Concerto. Even when there are lots of notes flying around, the main idea is often, at its core, quite simple and direct. Of course, the flip side of this is that it is very difficult to write catchy melodies all the time and there will inevitably be many patches of grey.
The title track of this album, In the Asylum, for piano trio, is a typical example being a work of mixed quality. For instance, it starts out positively enough with a beautiful melody in the lower register of the violin that creates an electric tension when dissonant fragments from the cello rub against it. Following this, however, are three minutes of counterpoint whose greyness fails to be relieved by sudden bursts of loud and fast notes. There are some quirky sections in the later stages of the piece, such as a spiky headlong section in a snap rhythm that occurs around two-thirds of the way, but the overall impression is of Barry in second gear.
A far more interesting piece is 1998. Appearing here in an arrangement for piano and violin, the work is a 22-minute pointillistic canvas of dots and squiggles that has a certain fascinating quality. The piece is an exemplar of a subgenre of Barry pieces that have a spare, somewhat abstract painterly quality to them. Its distinctive texture remains in the memory for long after one listens to it, even if one is hardly likely to be in a rush to listen to it right through for a second time. Midday, also for violin and piano, could also be considered to belong to this non-melodic based category, but it consists of a series of fleeting, minimalist gestures that are undeservingly subject to tedious repetition.
The most lively piece on the album is Les Vieux Sourd, a mash-up of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ and what sound like comically aggressive passages from Stockhausen’s Klavierstücke which listeners may recognise from the beginning of Barry’s opera The Importance of Being Earnest. Mary Dullea gives this piece a wonderfully bright performance that skips joyfully along undeterred by the multiple rhythmic tripwires that Barry has programmed into the piece.
One of the curious things about Barry’s worklist is that, in general, the more extravagant the title, the more underwhelming the piece. All day at home busy with my own affairs for piano solo is an exercise in two-part note against note counterpoint that moves along in crotchets before repeating itself exactly. The three little pieces that make up Baroness von Rikart are again another exercise in two-part counterpoint. A wishful assessment of these pieces might call them elliptical—a more realistic assessment would deem them to be uneventful.
The two remaining works on the album are recent arrangements of two relatively early pieces: Ø and Triorchic Blues. Ø is a neat example of Barry’s melodic ability in its most distilled form. In the new arrangement here for piano quartet, the addition of the string instruments give the piece an added poignancy over the bare melody in the opening section when compared to the original version for two pianos. The Fidelio Trio’s unison playing in the faster snap-rhythm section – with Rose Redgrave on viola – is fantastically tight and punchy. Triorchic Blues is perhaps Barry’s most arranged piece having appeared in a host of arrangements as well as his opera The Triumph of Beauty and Deceit. It is given a high-tension rollercoaster rendition by the Fidelio Trio such that when the piece abruptly finishes, the listener feels momentarily suspended in time.
While the pieces are hit and miss, the playing by the Fidelio Trio is first rate across the album. In many ways, this album demonstrates yet another side to their playing, being more about deadly clean accuracy and precision that brings out the hard, structural side to Barry’s music.
An additional bonus is Barry’s liner notes which recount a number of episodes from his childhood and student years. These range from quite tender portraits of both his parents to more amusing episodes of being summoned in front of a judge for stealing champagne bottles; all recounted in a slightly self-mythologising yet highly entertaining manner.
Gerald Barry: In the Asylum by the Fidelio Trio is released on Mode Records. Visit https://moderecords.com/catalog/332barry/.
Click on the image below to listen or visit Mode Records on Bandcamp.
Published on 12 October 2022
Adrian Smith is Lecturer in Musicology at TU Dublin Conservatoire.