Correction to This Article
A May 22 Style review incorrectly listed James Weaver as a baritone in a Cathedral Choral Society performance of "Serenade to Music." The singer was Jon Bruno.
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The Eclipse Chamber Orchestra, consisting mostly of National Symphony Orchestra players, performed Sunday at the Washington Memorial in Alexandria.
The Eclipse Chamber Orchestra, consisting mostly of National Symphony Orchestra players, performed Sunday at the Washington Memorial in Alexandria. (Eclipse Chamber Orchestra)

Michael McHale

Bravura playing in the music of Franz Liszt drew extended ovations at pianist Michael McHale's Sunday afternoon recital at the Phillips Collection. The young Irish artist, appearing in the third of four "Rediscovering Northern Ireland" concerts at the gallery, was clearly up to the demands of Liszt's far-ranging "Apr├Ęs une Lecture de Dante": He handled with gusto and skill the powerfully climbing themes and the thunderous climaxes that one expects in this evocation of Dante's hellish "Divine Comedy."

Yet, one could draw deeper satisfaction from the more delicate and calibrated sides of McHale's artistry that dominated this pleasing concert. At the start was a beautifully proportioned and energetic account of Mozart's Sonata in C Minor, K. 457. This is one of the composer's more dramatic works, which, as McHale pointed out, inspired Beethoven's impassioned "Pathetique" sonata.

Surprisingly, McHale highlighted the work's intricate construction and carefully spaced textures with a focused tone and sense of forward movement. This coolness carried into Samuel Barber's "Excursions," Op. 20, a set of four character pieces. Scenic moments, like the bluesy third movement and the hoedownlike finale, surely received their due. Yet McHale's greater concentration came out in less picturesque passages, the dewy harmonies and rhythmic driving sequences, at one point scrunching his face within inches of his fleet fingers scurrying around the upper registers.

McHale paid tribute to his homeland with a mysterious account of Ian Wilson's "For Eileen, After Rain," combining rich reverberation and more songful lines. The playing was again anything but over-the-top and effusive. Such a smart, restrained and fastidious display raises expectations for pianist David Quigley, McHale's compatriot who closes out the Phillips's Northern Ireland series this Sunday.

-- Daniel Ginsberg

Cathedral Choral Society

One of Britain's greatest composers, Ralph Vaughan Williams, melded romanticism, impressionism, folk song and Renaissance polyphony into an utterly seductive style all his own. But he's virtually ignored on American concert stages -- a point driven home on Sunday, when the Cathedral Choral Society gave the Washington premiere of his "Five Tudor Portraits" (based on 15th-century satirical poems by John Skelton), 72 years after the work's composition.

Granted, unlike Vaughan Williams's more frequently heard masterpiece, "Serenade to Music" (which received a rapturously beautiful performance elsewhere on the program, featuring soprano Laura Lewis, mezzo Stacey Rishoi, tenor Matthew Smith and baritone James Weaver), some of the "Portraits," such as the mock-reverential funeral ceremony for Jane Scroop's sparrow, seriously overstay their welcome.

But the work was given a committed reading under J. Reilly Lewis's baton, the rollicking and inventive score benefiting from the assured playing of the pickup orchestra and the customary blend and tonal allure of the Choral Society. (Though between Washington National Cathedral's swimmy acoustics and the composer's Technicolor orchestrations, Skelton's witty couplets smeared into what might as well have been Norwegian.)

In a Shakespeare-themed program that included shorter works by Mendelssohn and Berlioz, a highlight proved to be the suite from William Walton's score to the Laurence Olivier film of "Henry V." My only regret was that actor Andrew Long's colorfully delivered Shakespearean speeches were kept separate from the atmospheric musical movements designed specifically to underscore his words.

-- Joe Banno

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