The Austrian M&M’s – Mozart and Mahler – are the two great composers of the 18th and 19th centuries, and did so much to revolutionize and shape the musical environment in their own unique way. Tonight’s concert swung between the elegant charm of Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 23 and the tragic passion of Mahler’s Symphony no. 6.

Nathalia Milstein
© Frederic Labrouche

For the concerto, the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra was reduced from a symphony orchestra to chamber size. The thinking behind this was that such a size reduction might be nimbler on the uptake, and engage with more intimate dialogue with the soloist. All of which was true, but in this case, however, the strings in the opening orchestral exposition produced a thin sound, so that the homogeneity that comes with numbers was lacking. French pianist Nathalia Milstein, who won first prize in the Dublin International Competition in 2015, was back for the opening night of this year’s competition. On previous occasions, I have been struck by how sensitive Milstein’s playing is and how poetically she conceives the music. Tonight her Mozart was graceful and elegant but ultimately missing some inner fire.

Eliciting a pearly sound from the piano in her opening theme, her fingers glistened over the mellifluous semiquaver passages which abound in this movement. In the second subject she cast a ravishing web of sound before melting into some more pellucid passagework. It was in the second movement that Milstein seemed to really settle into this performance, producing playing of much depth and touching introspection, sadness imbued in its siciliano rhythm. What impressed me most here was her extraordinary colour palette, the delicate wisps of silken pianissimos melding so well with the orchestra. The sprightly finale had at times a mischievous character to it while conductor John Storgårds steered a steady course, resulting in a work replete with sedate good humour.

From the restrained elegance of Mozart in the first half we were treated to the intense and at times overpowering passion of Mahler’s Symphony no. 6 in the second. Gone was all the restraint of the first half as Storgårds approached this work as if doing battle with a Titan, wrestling with its complexities, living its climaxes to the full, and luxuriating in its simmering tenderness. The RTÉ NSO responded as if electrified. From the opening throb on the cellos, the music palpitated with breathless energy. There was comforting warmth to the swooping melody of the “Alma” theme as the strings rejoiced in its rich sensuousness, while the sinister laugh on the xylophone had diabolic overtones. There was a wonderful pastoral calm to the atmospheric cowbells before the terrifying march rhythm interrupted it again. Storgårds, waving his hands wildly, brought the fury of the first movement to a stunning close. 

The order of the second and third movements is a matter of some debate among scholars and musicians. Mahler first published the symphony with the Scherzo followed by the Andante but reversed the order in subsequent editions. Tonight’s concert put the Andante before the Scherzo, though not without the slight confusion of printing it the other way around in the programme notes.

Peaceful and gently seductive, the second movement soothed the tension of the first. Here the strings luxuriated in their melody, the woodwind intertwining with them while the horn sang out its passionate melody. Storgårds gently lulled our senses as we basked in the strings’ golden sound. The Scherzo, which is marked “heavy”, has ominous overtones similar to the first movement. The woodwind screeched eerily before dying away. Storgårds injected some dark humour into the score with capricious pizzicatos and exaggerated accelerandos.

It is the extraordinary finale with its incandescent climaxes that was the most thrilling aspect of tonight's performance, and while Storgårds’s interpretation at times bordered on excess, there was no doubting his heartfelt passion and commitment that carried the sweep of music on to its ineluctable end. There was so much to admire here: the ghostly, shimmering opening, the coquettish violin solo, the deep tuba theme and the consistently noble, fulsome sound from the RTÉ NSO. Time after time as the waves of climax succeeded one another, Storgårds whipped the RTÉ NSO into a priapic frenzy resulting in a thrilling rendition of Mahler 6.