Michael McHale and the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra at the National Concert Hall, 6th December 2014

This all-Russian performance sees the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra joining forces with two Belfast-born musicians, conductor Courtney Lewis and the fabulous pianist Michael McHale. The concert allows the audience to track the development of Russian music, jumping forward around twenty years with each work, and creating a narrative that places Prokofiev as the vital link between the slightly naïve folksiness of Borodin, and the cold sublimity of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5.

McHale’s playing is the highlight of the first half of the concert. A heartbreaking instinct for melody is what sets him apart from other Irish pianists, but this is coupled with fierce virtuosity in Prokofiev’s exuberant Piano Concerto No. 1. McHale is the sort of musician who pulls the listener into a trance-like state with his lyrical playing, and the crowd is given another chance to relish this sorcery as he leaves us with a mesmeric Field nocturne.

The Shostakovich is excellent, the sort of performance where little stands out as being less good (or more good) than the rest, a consistently assured and expressive performance that captures the curious mixture of passion and disinterest that makes Shostakovich special. Perhaps the standout playing comes in solos from John Finucane (clarinet) and Fergus O’Carroll (horn). There are eleven music students involved in this evening’s concert, all there as a result of the laudable RTÉ NSO Mentoring Scheme, and they acquit themselves well in a very demanding programme.

Courtney Lewis is regarded as one of the finest conductors of his generation and the orchestra produces an excellent performance of this symphony under him, but at times it seems that his exaggerated gestures and slightly strange beating are being ignored by the musicians, who could probably play the piece perfectly well without his help.

To finish (unfairly) on a sour note – as usual, the concert is forced to hang together under a ridiculous title: Russian Roulette. Presumably this works on the (surely incorrect??) assumption that potential audience members will be more attracted to this enigmatic phrase than to the names of the composers involved in the concert. On the other hand, annoyance at the silly name is tempered by the knowledge that anything is better than another concert called ‘From Russia With Love’, and doesn’t detract from a fabulous concert.

PROGRAMME

Borodin: Polovtsian Dances
Prokofiev: Piano Concerto No. 1 in D flat
Shostakovich: Symphony no. 5 in D minor

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