RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra at National Concert Hall, on 12 January 2018

Brightly lit and airy, the National Concert Hall provides a surprisingly balmy escape from the grim, dank conditions of a January evening in Dublin. Drawn in by the promise of a programme packed with tales of unrequited love, pastoral scenes, and the talents of guest soloist Valeriy Sokolov, the audience are altogether more cheerful than one might expect on such an otherwise dismal evening.

Although Paul Herriott’s introduction gives the minutest of hints that the evening’s content is a little less tame than it at may at first seem, even RTÉ cannot conceal the programme’s sheer eroticism once the National Symphony Orchestra gets into full swing. Under the skillful hands of guest conductor Stanislav Kochanovsky, their rendition of Debussy’s Prélude à l’après midi d’un faune is ice-cream for the ears: sweet, refreshing and ultimately moreish. Kochanovsky’s conducting is the very embodiment of Debussy’s writing: fluid, elegant, and inexplicably whimsical, the subtleties of which are not lost on the orchestra. The symphonic poem’s meandering theme highlights the strength of the NSO’s woodwind section, drawing the listener into the works dream-like atmosphere amidst rolling harp glissandi and swathes of strings. The luxuriant end product isn’t quite Dionysian, but would most certainly make Mr Tumnus blush.

The pastoral reverie induced by the sumptuous performance is shattered in the evening’s second work: Bartók’s Violin Concerto No. 2. Stimulating in a very different sense, the presence of Sokolov onstage demands the audience’s full attention. The guest soloist has, in addition to an impressive grasp of his instrument, an unmistakable and yet understated panache as a performer. Tearing through Bartók’s folk-tinged solos with blistering energy, Sokolov’s subtle sway and occasional—and possibly unintentional—nods of seeming approval betray a reserved enthusiasm. The orchestra seems to provide an anchor to performer as well as the tonal centre of the piece, so consumed by the rapid scale passages is the soloist that it seems at times that he could happily play them endlessly.

What better way to end a sensuous musical romp than with the opium-fuelled nightmares of a young artist? Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique sees conductor and orchestra in full flight. Kochanovsky’s style and gesture undergo a chameleonic transformation from the calm with which he approached Debussy and Bartók’s work. He is, at times, cartoonishly entertaining to watch. The course of the work sees a variety of explosive hand gestures, which reach a climax during the witch’s sabbath as the conductor jumps up and down on the podium, seemingly lost in his enthusiasm. This is a performance that even years of enforced Leaving Cert study cannot tarnish. True to form, Berlioz’s work exercises every musical muscle that the National Symphony Orchestra has to spare: timpani and double basses in particular seem to be the fonts of endless energy, not once shirking from the rolls and deliciously menacing low frequency scales that the score demands. The brass and bassoons too, dispose themselves admirably to the Dies irae beloved of Wendy Carlos. Heralding, as it does, the final hurdle, the notorious strains seem to renew the energy of the orchestra, sending them galloping towards an incendiary finale with the devilish glee of a diabolical horde.

Stumbling back out of the oasis that is the NCH into the bitter atmospheric conditions, one can’t help but reflect that his evening’s offering serves as a reminder of the rock ‘n’ roll history of classical music: long before the pioneering of the electric guitar, before The Rolling Stones or the rise of Heavy Metal, Hector Berlioz and friends were serving sex and drugs with violins.

 

Programme:

Debussy – Prélude à l’après midi d’un faune

Bartók – Violin Concerto No. 2

Berlioz – Symphonie fantastique, Op. 14

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