RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra at National Concert Hall, 5 October 2019 conducted by Nathalie Stutzmann
Hector Berlioz was not a composer renowned for his subtlety, in matters either personal or musical. Perhaps best known to the Irish public–thanks to the Leaving Cert syllabus–for his allegedly opium-fuelled Symphonie Fantastique, the composer’s life reads like a gothic novel: a string of tragic romances, emotional derangement and morbid introspection. Tonight’s audience in the National Concert Hall (and tuning in via Lyric FM) might well expect the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra‘s programme with Conductor Nathalie Stutzmann to prove dramatic.
La Damnation de Faust is a highly theatrical work from the opus of a highly theatrical composer, and the three short excerpts we hear take us through a range of emotions and moods. ‘Will-o-Wisps’ gets the evening off to a jolly start. Conductor Nathalie Stutzmann is both lively and understated, relaying signals to the orchestra with precision and embodied enthusiasm. The short piece sees the woodwind placed front and centre with their lively delivery of Berlioz’s whimsical theme. The gently waltzing ‘Dance of the Sylphs’ that follows draws us into a more dream-like soundscape, its gentle violin theme and harp arpeggios creating a serene atmosphere. That serenity is soon shattered by a syncopated horn call, signaling the beginning of the ‘Rákóczy March’, with its thundering energy.
Soloist Daniel Lozakovich joins the orchestra for Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1. An expectant hush falls over the audience. The first movement allows Lozakovich to show his virtuosity, vividly coaxing the expressive melody from his instrument. Lozakovich’s treatment of the second movement theme is tender and caring, creating a relaxed and almost mindful atmosphere as he plays.
The tremolo strings that open the beginning of the third movement have the effect of someone shouting ‘Sit up and listen!’ at the audience. And listen we do, for Lozakovich tackles Bruch’s rapid solo passages with the blistering proficiency of a rockstar during a beloved solo, swaying, rising on tiptoe. He knows precisely where he’s going, and he seems to be enjoying getting there. And he’s not the only one: the orchestra are, for want of a better phrase, giving it socks.
That Schumann’s Symphony No. 3 (also known as the ‘Rhenish Symphony’) is a crowd-pleaser is a surprise to no one, least of all to Stutzmann, who, as she conducts, exudes the aura of one having a whole load of fun. The first movement is upbeat and, with drumrolls and punchy brass, the NSO offers exactly the heroic sounds that should herald the beginning of the weekend.
If the Rhenish was inspired by Schumann’s experience of the Rhineland, then the second movement is surely the Rhine itself, with its sense of fluid motion. The movements that follow take us on a journey through the pastoral, the whimsical, the sombre, the downright majestic. Stutzmann, maintaining her surgical precision, channels that energy with the most subtle of gestures, and in the final moments the ensemble draws forth a thundering finale that not only sends the audience away happy, but will almost certainly see them coming back for more.
Hector Berlioz, La damnation de Faust: Will-o-the-Wisps; Dance of the Sylphs; Rákóczy March
Max Bruch, Violin Concerto No. 1
Robert Schumann, Symphony No. 3 (‘Rhenish’)
Nathalie Stutzmann & RTÉ NSO: Stedman Photography
Daniel Lozakovich: Lev Efimov, courtesy of Deutsche Grammophon