The inclusion of Mahler in a Friday night concert is always guaranteed to draw a crowd, and Mahler’s Tenth Symphony paired with his ‘Ruckert Lieder’ did not disappoint. The hall was near capacity and abuzz with excitement as the RTE National Symphony Orchestra filed on stage. The night’s conductor, Stefan Blunier, greeted to passionate applause as he bounded on stage, soon followed by the Irish soprano soloist Celine Byrne.
Byrne, poised and elegant at centre stage while the woodwinds fluttered into life. Throughout the first four poem settings she remained tranquil, her expressions reflecting the mood of the music. Finally in Um Mitternacht she began to use her whole body to dramatise the performance, increasing her performance level and drawing the audience further into the music. Byrne’s vocally and physically expressive abilities were striking and meant she was never lost as the principal storyteller, no matter how large the orchestral accompaniment. Interaction between orchestra and vocalist was subtle but present, well controlled by Blunier. An impressive, emotive performance of a challenging work.
The excellent orchestration of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony by Deryck Cooke gave the orchestra a chance to show off their capabilities. In contrast to Blunier’s jollity as he took his position, the strings began with a sombre sound, each section moving as one, exquisitely led by the first desks. Blunier’s conducting style was something to behold, his gestures the physical manifestation of the orchestra’s music. The solo violin proved herself again, walking the line of blending with and directing the insectile woodwinds. This made way to a sudden, warm and rich brass entry. Unfortunately the surprise of this was spoilt by the somewhat overly energetic leap of Blunier, creating a rather unmusical thump anticipating the usually epic moment. The solo trumpet voice soared out from the sea of brass before being overcome once again.
The scherzo movement is Mahler at his typical best with dashing strings, jumping woodwinds and brassy outbursts. The orchestra responds well, with a particularly notable championing of the challenging horn solo. The movement came to an explosive finish with some players clearly pushing themselves to the limits for the sake of the music and a palpable energy in the audience. The third and forth movements follow in similar dramatic kind through Purgatorio and a bitter second scherzo.
Undoubtedly the highlight of the concert was the opening of the fifth and final movement with the eruption of the bass drum. The sound caused members of the audience to cry out in surprise, adding to the drama of the moment. The exquisite movement from haunting tuba solo through the lower orchestra to moments of light from the woodwinds and horns remains on the ear long after leaving the concert hall, thankful for the resolution granted by the strings.
A powerful concert embodying the spirit of the composer, accomplished with both delicate and bombastic skill by the orchestra as Stefan Blunier required, and the memorable voice of Celine Byrne, the night was a pleasingly haunting experience enjoyable by anyone with a taste for drama and the unexpected.