Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (with members of National Youth Orchestra of Ireland) in National Concert Hall on 27 August 2016

It’s exciting to hear an orchestra of the calibre of the famous Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam at any time. Tonight’s concert in Dublin, however, is also special for the ensemble itself, as it marks two beginnings: the opening of a three-year tour to every country in the European Union, a project called ‘RCO Meets Europe’, and also the unofficial start of Daniele Gatti’s tenure as its new chief conductor. Looking to be more than just another concert tour, this travelling project is infused with idealism, promoting the sense of a shared European culture and traditions not only with audiences but also, on a practical level, with local young musicians. For tonight’s opening piece the Amsterdamers are joined on stage by thirty-three players from the National Youth Orchestra of Ireland. Having rehearsed and worked with members of the orchestra over the past few days, this collaboration must be a fantastic experience for them.

The first piece is the overture to Weber’s opera Oberon. The pure opening horn call is answered by muted violins and, as it gradually builds, the music conjures up the opera’s fairytale setting. The sheer beauty of the ensemble’s tonal quality is established from the outset, with the richly full string sound. The faster passages have the necessary quicksilver feel, and the piece as a whole shows superbly committed playing.

Sol Gabetta_Marco Borggreve

[Photo: Marco Borggreve]

This is followed by the Cello Concerto in A minor by Robert Schumann, for which the ensemble is joined by star Argentinian cellist Sol Gabetta. This work was left unperformed in Schumann’s day partly because it flouted conventions, avoiding technical display for its own sake or pitting the soloist against the ensemble as audiences might have expected, and instead uses the concerto as an opportunity for dialogue and collaboration. This sense of collaboration is beautifully recreated in today’s performance. Rather than edgily pressing in with her first entry, Gabetta’s opening phrase steals upon the ear, softly emerging from the orchestral texture. Gabetta matches Schumann’s melodic style with a beautiful singing tone, and a superb feeling for phrasing and smooth portamento.

Gatti achieves a great sense of dynamic balance between ensemble and soloist, allowing the full sections to grow into a gloriously rich sound before deftly scaling it back as the cello rejoins. There is vital, spirited playing from all on stage, with a powerful sense of cohesion, and beautifully-observed moments of detail. Gabetta’s closing cadenza is nuanced and graceful, and there is just so much to enjoy in her playing. Rapturously received, for an encore she – accompanied by the cellos of the orchestra – plays the ‘Song of the Birds’ (as arranged by the great Catalan cellist Pau Casals), its soft ending creating an almost perfect silence in the hall.

The second half of the concert is given over to the Symphony No. 4 in E flat by Anton Bruckner, known as his ‘Romantic’ Symphony. Like the Weber, this too opens with a solo horn call, this time bold and insistent. The music takes hold with an enveloping liveliness. The cohesion and intensity that the string and woodwind players achieve is miraculous, making it almost sound like chamber music until the great forte passages come crashing in, like mountainous waves of sound. The tone of the ensemble is vivid and complexly detailed, its intonation faultless. The richly expressive playing of the strings – sometimes light as air, other times darkly weighted – comes to the fore in the aria-like slow movement, while the scherzo provides the springboard for a powerful brass communion. Playing like this encourages us to listen more, and more intently – it is, quite literally, a feast for the ears.

Neither Gatti nor the orchestra are strangers to Bruckner, and it is fascinating to imagine them building their new relationship together through this music. At times his physical movements are minimal, even non-existent, before the baton rises again with gestures simple and precise. The final movement dazzles, as its incredible contrasts in texture and colour, the rising phrases and then the sheer intensity of the close evoke something like the sun rising above clouds. Even though this is a well-known work, it was like hearing it for the first time. In recent years standing ovations seem to come all too easily, but for once this one was richly deserved. It was an unforgettable evening.

Programme:

Weber: Oberon, overture

Schumann: Cello Concerto in A minor, Op. 129 (Sol Gabetta, cello)

Bruckner: Symphony No. 4 in E flat (‘Romantic’)

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