Released in October 2010, Philharmonics by Danish born, Berlin-based, classically trained pianist Agnes Obel, has been one of the word-of-mouth success stories of the past year. Akin to Anna Calvi’s recent Vicar Street performance, tonight’s show has something of a triumphal end-of-year return about it, both for those in the audience who saw Obel in The Sugar Club in April (Obel also visited Ireland during the summer, for a by-all-accounts spine-tingling set at St. Canice’s Cathedral during the Kilkenny Arts Festival) and for the first-timers the larger venue can accommodate.
She is joined by German cellist Anna Muller, who has accompanied her throughout her extensive tour in support of Philharmonics, and by recent recruit Gillian Fleetwood, a harp-toting Scottish lass. Most of that debut album gets an airing, from the beginning instrumental ‘Falling, Catching’ to the title track, to the sensuous ‘Beast’ and the catchy ‘Just So’, which has enjoyed an afterlife in an ad for German telecommunications company Deutsche Telekom. Newer material includes ‘a love song which isn’t’ called ‘Fuel To Fire’, and ‘Smoke and Mirrors’, which we are told has been rearranged for harp. Her cover of John Cale’s ‘I Keep A Close Watch’ has a music-box quality about it, before we head into the home straight of ‘Riverside’, ‘Over The Hill and ‘On Powdered Ground’.
Silence plays an integral part in Obel’s sound, and she is clearly influenced by the oxymoronic-sounding ‘lush minimalism’ of French impressionist composers like Debussy, Ravel and Satie, rather than anything grandly orchestral out of the Germanic tradition, although when Muller apparently loops and/or overdrives multiple layers of cello parts during the dramatic outro of ‘On Powdered Ground’ it recalls the infinite massed drones of Laurie Anderson’s violin or even Cale’s voila. The naturalist imagery of many of her lyrics chimes well with the late 19th century forebears.
The hushed reverence of the concert hall threatens to loom too large, but is nicely diffused by some appreciative heckling and flirtatious stage banter. Traditional Scottish song ‘Katie Cruel’, which contemporary audiences will be more familiar with via Karen Dalton’s version on In My Own Time, provides the encore. Subdued yet subtle, melancholic but ultimately mysterious, Agnes, Anna and Gillian deserve the more-than-polite applause.
Photos: Damien McGlynn.