Last week the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra performed works from Spain, this week it was music from Russia – or more particularly, St Petersburg. Starting with Rimsky-Korsakov’s sprightly, if ominous, The Tsar’s Bride Overture, there followed a double bill of Shostakovich, finishing up with the phosphorescent Firebird Suite by Stravinsky.

Simone Lamsma © Otto Van Den Toorn
Simone Lamsma
© Otto Van Den Toorn

There was bite to Tung-Chieh Chuang’s reading of The Tsar’s Bride Overture: the rhythm was sharp, the brass interjections menacing and the strings sprightly. There were moments of tension as the violins tentatively negotiated the perilously high register, while the woodwinds towards the end were slightly disjointed. Overall, this was a satisfying account whetting the appetite to get acquainted with this rarely-heard opera.

Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto no. 1 in A minor was composed for the renowned violinist David Oistrakh and it is Oistrakh’s recording that is the litmus test for all other performances. Dutch violinist Simone Lamsma gave an electrifying performance. Hers is an immaculately precise if unfussy virtuosity that seeks to unearth the music’s complexities and to intensify them. The low mutterings of the opening Nocturne were filled with pathos that slowly intensified with her vibrato until they reached the upper registers of her instrument. Pouring her all into the visceral double stops, she created a sinister sound world which hovered like a miasma in the air.

Attacking the scherzo with demonic ferocity, Lamsma made mincemeat of the terrifying cross rhythms and the lethal double stops. The woodwinds gave some excellent supportive dialogue while Chuang goaded this danse macabre to an unbelievably terrifying level.

The third movement is in the form of a passacaglia, a repeated bass pattern above which other instruments comment and have their variations. There was a touching innocence to the cellos’ theme, reflecting back to a time before the brutalities of war. Lamsma’s stratospheric notes were shatteringly intense as she poured her body and soul into the music.

Once again, Chuang’s taut rhythmic control of the final movement made it bubble along with ironic good cheer. The vim and vigour displayed by both soloist and orchestra had us on the edge of our seats, making for a thrilling conclusion of the first half.

The taut rhythms and vivid characterisations worked well in Shostakovich’s The Golden Age Suite. This suite forms the basis of the ballet of the same name, which tells of a football team on a trip to the West during an industrial exhibition. The NSO ramped up the quirky side of the Introduction with chirpy piccolos, cheeky trumpets and a ludic waltz motion. Chuang captured the stark beauty of the second movement, bringing it to a huge and disturbing climax. The Polka bobbed along merrily, the orchestra getting obvious enjoyment from the lively score.

Stravinsky’s The Firebird Suite (1919 version) closed the concert and it was pipped to the post by Lamsma’s Shostakovich for highlight of the concert. It was an utterly gripping account from Chuang and NSO bringing the magical elements to life with imaginative characterisation. Chuang elicited an extraordinary palette of sound from the lugubrious, quiet menace of the opening cellos and double basses to the diaphanous, coaxingly shy muttering of the firebird. It wasn’t a flawless performance – the trombones suffered some tuning issues – but the delectable love harmonies of Dance of the Princesses seduced the ear, enticing any half-game prince to do battle with nasty ogres. The opening wallop of the Infernal Dance of King Kastchei jolted us out of complacency while the panting, tumultuous brass were frighteningly loud.

There were some exquisite moments in the Finale too, such as when the harp soared upwards like a spectacular sunrise or the short silence before the great, all-consuming final chord.