National Symphony Orchestra at National Concert Hall, Dublin on 6 May 2022

A sign of the times, perhaps, but these days getting a good seat at the last minute in the concert hall of a Friday night is easy – even for a line-up like tonight’s, with its starry Mahler and Stravinsky. For now, the bars are less thronged at the interval, maintaining social distance is easy, and the orchestra is playing better than ever – and it always sounds better live than streamed. People are missing out.

Esa-Pekka Salonen’s process-driven Helix (2005) provides a smart and concentrated opening, as well as a link back to the excitement of last weekend’s New Music Dublin. Its graduated mix of rhythmic compression and dynamic expansion takes us on a journey from a fragile delicacy of mixed percussion and solo woodwind to the visceral crunch of the work’s close. There is also the sense of a gradual approach of something unstoppable, or of screws being tightened ever closer. Fresh from running English National Opera’s recent production of Poul Ruders’s The Handmaid’s Tale, conductor Joana Carniero’s experience with contemporary orchestral music shows through in the lithe energy and precision of the ensemble’s playing.

Joana Carniero

Still, there is no mistaking that, for most, the evening’s main event is what follows, as mezzo-soprano Tara Erraught comes on stage. Gustav Mahler’s early Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (usually translated as ‘Songs of a Wayfarer’) may have been a relatively youthful exercise for the composer, but in many ways it stakes out the stylistic and creative priorities of much that followed. At its heart is the bliss of the innocent natural world, brought face-to-face with the terror and anguish of a devastated emotional landscape.

While only four songs in length, this is very much a song-cycle, with Mahler both expanding and distilling the possibilities of the German art-song tradition. It is a beautiful work, and in Tara Erraught’s singing it finds a powerful advocate. It is over two years since she was last heard here, and either her voice has changed or else this material draws something new from her: there is a greater depth and vibrancy of tone, an emphatic certainty of interpretation, and also an emotional openness that goes with it. Everything is connected – her diction is clear and fluent, even pointed at times, with text and expression going hand in hand.

The wistful enthusiasm of the first two songs draws bright tone and a keen sense of character. For the crisis of ‘Ich hab’ ein glühend Messer’ (‘I have a red-hot knife…’) Erraught projects an operatic intensity, singing with urgency and passion, before reaching the heartfelt fragility of the final song. The orchestra clearly relishes this rich material, playing beautifully, but without overwhelming the singer. This is a superbly controlled performance, worthy of a recording, and the audience respond enthusiastically. It certainly makes the prospect of seeing Tara Erraught in the title role of Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda next month all the more exciting.

Tara Erraught

As if that wasn’t enough, the orchestra returns after the interval to perform Igor Stravinsky’s colourful ballet suite Petrushka. One of the great trio of dance-works commissioned by the Ballets Russes in the early 1910s, as a concert piece Petrushka takes the listener on a dazzling sonic journey. Luckily, with Carniero on the podium, we have at least one dancer in the house, and her fluid sense of poise and rhythmic movement comes through both in her physicality and in the playing of the ensemble.

This is a work of many moods, of excitement, mystery, frenetic energy, instability, wit, devastating loss, and more besides. The episodes come thick and fast, through which each transition is smooth, and the ensemble crisp and tight. The vivid colours that come through the different instrumental combinations are contrasted with some superb instrumental solos (from every woodwind player, many of the brass, leader Tamas Kocsis, and above all the heroic piano-playing of Fergal Caulfield). There are many points of detail to enjoy before we reach the understated closing scene. It is a celebration of what an orchestra can do, and with this band playing there is much to enjoy.

Esa-Pekka Salonen: Helix
Gustav Mahler: Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen
Igor Stravinsky: Petrushka (1947 concert version)

Tara Erraught, mezzo-soprano (Mahler)
Joana Carniero, conductor
National Symphony Orchestra

Images supplied by NSO