Martin Johnson with the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra at the National Concert Hall, Friday 13 March 2015
Kenneth Montgomery‘s last visit to the National Concert Hall came with the world-renowned period instrument group The Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century. The performance then, of Handel, Mozart and Field, was scintillating; so the prospect of seeing Montgomery conducting Mendelssohn and Beethoven with the thoroughly modern RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra is more than intriguing.
The opening of Mendelssohn’s playful Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream immediately indicates not only that Montgomery is attempting to pull a more historically informed sound from the orchestra, but that the players are willing and able to follow his lead. A shimmering, exciting performance of a work written by a remarkable seventeen-year-old.
Soloist Martin Johnson, freed from his usual duties as leader of the cello section, appears for a work written much later in more ways that one. Composed nearly two hundred years after Mendelssohn’s overture, and by a man more than half a century older, Frank Corcoran’s brand new cello concerto is an extraordinary test of musicianship and virtuosity for Johnson, and it is a miraculous portrayal. Having heard Johnson performing Gráinne Mulvey’s cello concerto a couple of months ago, where the cellist is (perhaps intentionally) engulfed by the orchestra in a cacophonous losing battle, puts the pin-sharp orchestration of Corcoran’s massive work into perspective; the cello is never once lost beneath the massive forces behind him. It is emotionally meaningful and formally impressive, a concerto on the symphonic scale of the Dvorak concerto namechecked by the composer in his lengthy, unpretentious and entertaining programme note.
Montgomery fires up a terrific performance of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, once again in a style very different from this orchestra’s default Beethoven sound. Both conductor and orchestra deserve plaudits for their flexibility and adaptability in what was presumably a short rehearsal period.
Montgomery is the first conductor we have seen displacing the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra from their usual seating order. Second violins were sat on the outside right for the entire concert, with cellos tucked in to the right of the first violins. This simple movement totally alters the sound of the orchestra, and other choices like bringing the timpanist away from his normal position in the orchestra’s nether regions had similar effects. It would be interesting to see the orchestra play around with their placement on the stage more often.
Mendelssohn Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Corcoran Cello Concerto [world premiere]
Beethoven Symphony No. 6 in F major, Op. 68 (Pastoral)