While pianist-conductors are a fairly common sight, violinist-conductors are a much rarer breed. Perhaps, it has something to do with clutching a rather expensive violin and bow with one hand while conducting vigorously with the other. It was the charasmatic Nikolaj Znaider who took on both these demanding roles tonight with great aplomb.

Nikolaj Znaider © Lars Gundersen
Nikolaj Znaider
© Lars Gundersen

There was simplicity to the two-work programme, Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D major and Shostakovich’s Symphony no. 5 in D minor, works chosen for their obvious audience appeal. Both pieces explore the D major-minor paradigm and both the scale of the concerto and the symphony are epic, something that is reflected in the similar length of each one.

Right from the start, Znaider captured the Beethovenian spirit, eliciting a full, energetic sound from the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, inspiring each to give of their best. It was momentarily disconcerting to have the conductor turn round and face the audience before launching into the treacherous broken octaves on his violin. With an expressive raise of an eyebrow or a pointed half-turn to either side Znaider ingeniously conducted the orchestra and at the same time managed to produce the most golden, heavenly sounds from his violin. It was this chamber music element which meant that the NSO was listening intently to the violinist, resulting in a fluid exchange of ideas. There was bite to the sforzandi while the rhythmic delineation was as crisp as the frosty air outside. The sweep and trajectory of the long phrases was most satisfying, serving only to highlight its luscious intensity. The cadenza showcased a spectacular display of bravura.

Good-naturedly joshing with the audience about the applause in between movements, Znaider soared ethereally in the second movement Larghetto. The hushed stillness he managed to create was both deeply poetic and touchingly intimate. As the music lilted on, he unfurled the delicate tendrils of his melody, luxuriating in their exquisite beauty.

The third movement sparkled with wit and good humour. Znaider charmed from start to finish, eliciting a fulsome tone from his instrument, something that was echoed in the tone of all the string section. The dynamic gradation was most impressive as well from a whispering pp to a rumbustious ff. Delivering an exhilarating final solo flourish, Znaider and the NSO dished up a goose-bump inducing conclusion.

Changing into white-tie for the second half, Znaider opened Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony with a sense of urgency, the taut strings only easing off to give way to the miasma of mournful sadness. This was sensitively phrased by the violins while the shy vernal utterances of the flute marked the end of innocence. Here, the sinister piano bass entrance led inexorably to the fast rhythmic drive of the brass as the music pulsated with nervous energy. Much kudos goes to the trumpets with their shrill utterances and tight march against the merciless beat of the drum before the seismic arrival at the recap in D.

The characterisation was spot on in the second movement. Here rambunctious cellos and cheeky brass revelled in their lines while the violin solo flirted coquettishly. Znaider’s control of dynamics was such a feature: the whole range so perfectly calibrated. There was sharp bite to the pizzicato while the whole orchestra thoroughly encapsulated the spirit of irony of this movement.

There is an infinite sadness to the wondrous phrases of the slow third movement as they meld seamlessly into one another. Znaider created a desolate, lonely soundscape from which the orchestra built inexorably to its outpouring in the climax. The lone flute melody and the hushed tremelando will stand out in my memory for ages to come while the ff tremelando was incandescent, suggesting humanity’s shriek against the murderous brutality of the Stalinist regime.

Znaider’s finale was a high adrenalin march, a magnificent tour de force from everyone. Shrill trumpets, strings at full throttle and sharp cries from the piccolo made for a riveting triumph while the sonic boom of the gun shots on the bass drum and blazing brass at the end of this magnificent concert rightly brought the house down.

****1