From a brutal, sacrificial killing to the seamy world of prostitutes and tramps, tonight’s concert wasn’t short of pieces from the world of ballet to shock and entertain in equal measure. Historically both Bartók’s The Miraculous Mandarin and Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring got off to rocky starts: the former being banned after its debut, while the latter caused an infamous riot at its first performance. Under the competent conducting from Estonian maestro Mihhail Gerts, both were a riotous success in the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra's concert. Sandwiched between these once controversial works was the ever popular Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini by Rachmaninov played with balletic grace and nimbleness by Irish pianist Fiachra Garvey.

Mihhail Gerts © Kaupo Kikkas
Mihhail Gerts
© Kaupo Kikkas

Bartók’s one-act ballet The Miraculous Mandarin recounts the story of a prostitute luring in various clients before bringing in a mandarin who quickly becomes besotted with fatal consequences. The suite on offer tonight was brimming with acerbic wit and simmering sexual tension. Gerts elicited a wide tonal palette from the RTÉ NSO; the strings whirred, the brass honked while the clarinet solo which represents the lady of the night teased and beguiled each note of its melody. The glissandos on the trombone were lasciviously suggestive, while the tremolo strings hinted at mounting tensions. This was not a particularly visceral interpretation, but the steely focus which Gert and the orchestra brought to it was most convincing.

Deadpan wit and balletic playfulness underpinned Garvey’s approach to the Rachmaninov. He made the filigree glisten with his nimble fingerwork while the muscular chords of the 8th variation were well-handled. There was a cool ferocity to his big playing in variations 10 and 13, the Dies irae booming with menacing intent in the former. The dark foreboding chromaticism of variation 17 melted beautifully into rich, warm chords of the famous variation 18. Gerts milked the NSO for every drop of expressiveness here while Garvey attacked its climactic chords with passion. The finale, which features variations 19 to 24, was full of vim and vigour. Doubles octaves, lightning-like leaps and other virtuosic moments were brilliantly dispatched by Garvey who brought the piece to a gripping conclusion.

The second half was taken up with the once reviled, now revered, Rite of Spring, a work that abounds in elemental passions and fierce spellbinding rhythms. Gerts’ meticulous approach centred on a precise rhythmic drive and a balancing and sifting of all the unusual orchestral timbres this piece has to offer. The lonely bassoon solo which opens “the Adoration of the Earth” possessed an eerie, almost haunting quality. The “Augurs of Spring” with its famous repetitive, stamping, bitonal chord, was thoroughly disturbing with cacophonous woodwind interjections and shrieks from the brass. Gerts and the NSO used the pianissimos and at times silence, such as the pause at the kissing of the earth, to heighten the terror of this rite.

The serpentine woodwind which opened “The sacrifice” possessed an acidic quality. A miasma of other worldliness enveloped the tranquil traditional folk dance of “The Mysterious Circles of the Young Girls” in kaleidoscopic colours. Dispelling this ethereal atmosphere, the deafening drum-beat of the “Glorification of the Victim” accompanied with howls and shrieks from the woodwind and brass drove the music forward. Gerts whipped the NSO into a frenzy for the “Sacrificial Dance” with its demonic rhythms, and visceral chords. The final chord, representing the final collapse of the victim, was disturbingly spectacular, proving that, despite the passage of time, this is a work which still has power to shock.