Julian Rachlin with the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra at the National Concert Hall, November 28 2014
All-round virtuoso Julian Rachlin returns for his second consecutive week as violin soloist and conductor of the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra. A man of many talents, Rachlin has previously also appeared as a viola soloist with this orchestra, but has left the larger instrument at home on both Dublin appearances this season.
The programme opens with a charming but flawed performance of Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 3 in G ‘Strasbourg’. Rachlin’s unusual interpretation of the work can make it seem a little breathless, most notably in the opening movement through a tendency to rush towards the end of phrases. His use of vibrato would not be to the taste of Mozart purists, working with a simple on/off switch (mainly in the on position) rather than subtle graduations. Rachlin gets away with a lot of these eccentricities, mainly because of the distinctive, gleaming colour of his sound, but overall they disrupt the coherence of the opening movement slightly. The beautiful, simple melodies of the slow movement are wonderfully played.
The Liszt/Dreznin work that follows (in this, its Irish premiere) brings out a totally different side of all parties. Based on the monumental Après une lecture du Dante for solo piano, this is the sort of piece where Rachlin’s strangeness ceases to be a liability, and becomes a huge strength, a sort of inspired, gypsy-like madness. The strings, who sound vaguely plodding in the Mozart, sound alive and brilliant, with particular praise reserved for cello principal Martin Johnson, whose part requires a separate music stand, and who admirably matches the soloist’s magical tone. The cellos solos are often in unison at the octave with Rachlin’s part, an extremely unconventional doubling in a violin concerto and yet extremely convincing. The score is full of fascinating details like this, the majority of which seem to make perfect sense. The orchestration is not entirely Lisztian, regularly calling Wagner and others to mind, but it seems doubtful that it was intended to be. This is a fabulous reworking of the piece that seems both true to the original piano work and yet impossible to imagine in any other form than what is presented here.
After the interval comes Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7. This suffers from a problem opposite to the one that afflicted the opening of the Mozart: rather than being breathless (which this symphony probably should be) this performance provides almost every phrase in the three fast movements with a slightly downward trajectory, constantly sapping the piece of its forward momentum. It seems that Rachlin is achieving exactly what he wants here, and the orchestral playing is precise and sonically sound, but the effect is lacklustre. At times Rachlin seems to want to wallow in the music, trying to hold on to lyrical moments in a manner that simply doesn’t work, robbing many of the key events in the work of their urgency. All three of these movements are a little slow, which makes the fast speed of the famous slow movement jar despite a perfectly acceptable tempo. Overall, the performance seems a little superficial, leaving much of the power and subtlety of Beethoven’s great score nestled in its pages – perhaps more of this could have been extracted had Rachlin not made the brave decision to conduct from memory.
Mozart: Violin Concerto No. 3 in G, Strasbourg, K. 216
Liszt/Dreznin: Concerto-Fantasia “After reading Dante”
Beethoven: Symphony No. 7 in A