A concert of nearly exclusively modern music must be a hard sell or so the paucity of numbers would seem to suggest. I suspect that the only 19th-century composer on last night’s programme might have been a key factor in enticing a significant number of the punters in. If so, then the exciting musicianship that was on offer over the whole of the concert amply rewarded their decision in unexpected areas. From visceral Lutosławski to edgy Ligeti, this concert showcased how absorbing modern art music can be with playing as scintillating as this. The familiar face of Helena Wood, normally leader of the NSO, was in the spotlight last night as soloist while the ever engaging RTÉ Con Tempo Quartet concluded the concert.

Cristian Măcelaru © David Swanson
Cristian Măcelaru
© David Swanson

Lutosławski’s Partita for Violin and Orchestra was written in 1987-88 for the great violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter. Containing five movements in total, the three major movements, according to the composer himself, “follow rhythmically at least the tradition of pre-classical, 18th-century piano music.” The intervening ad libertum sections are short linking passages for violin and piano. Wood attacked the fast sections with such energy and visceral intensity that was as lapel-grabbing as it was impressive while the husky tones of the lower strings added poignancy to the slower moving parts. The Largo middle movement is deeply moving and both Wood and the NSO played it with rapt concentration, Wood deploying a passionate, intense vibrato. The attack of the rhythm in the final movement was as sharp as a Swiss knife and just as menacing. It concluded with some ear-splittingly high notes which Wood dispatched with great panache.

Mussorgsky's ever popular Pictures at an Exhibition, with its vivid and varied musical images, was never going to have to struggle very hard to be top billing in any concert. Here conductor Cristian Măcelaru successfully dug beneath the Frenchified patina of Ravel’s orchestration to explore the Russian sonorities of Mussgorsky’s much rougher-edged piano score. There was a lumbering fulsomeness to the brass in the opening Promenade, while the deformed character of the Gnome rushed hither and tither. At times, however, this precipitous motion detracted from the overall sinister mood. The saxophonist Kevin Hanofin imbued his part in Il vecchio castello with a simple poignancy, creating a gentle frisson of yearning as his note hovered above the angst-filled chord before resolving itself. Both the gossamer touch needed for Les Tuileries and the ponderous oxen plod in Bydło were satisfyingly elicited by Măcelaru. The Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks had all the ludic, balletic elegance of the Kirov, while the shrill trumpet depicted the whine of Schmuyle. It was in Baba Yaga that Măcelaru ratcheted up the tension until my hairs started rising on end before the cathartic Great Gate of Kiev sounded loudly and clearly. As the Orthodox hymns gave way to the final moments of the work, the NSO gave it their all, sweeping all before them in a deafening triumph.

Kodály’s Dances of Galánta, which opened the concert was at times mercurial and at other times fiery and featuring some intoxicatingly beautiful clarinet solos. Contemporary Irish composer, Seóirse Bodley’s A Small white cloud drifts over Ireland contained a myriad of different sound worlds that borrowed largely from traditional Irish music in a thoroughly modern context.

In what effectively amounts to a graveyard slot, the courageous Con Tempo string quartet took to the stage after the main concert had concluded. Listening to anything after the magnificence of Pictures at an Exhibition is similar to offering a sandwich to someone who has just finished a tasting menu: and Ligeti’s Métamorphoses nocturnes, String Quartet no. 1 are far from being easily digestible. Yet, kudos to the double husband and wife team for giving a highly engaging account of the most complex work of the night. This quartet by Ligeti like many other composers of his time did not meet the “socialist realism” art decreed by the politburo. Delving into the cross rhythms and rising chromaticism, the Con Tempo quartet dispatched the fiendish technical difficulties with ease. The fluid exchange of ideas and the passing on of notes showcased how extraordinarily well this quartet communicates. Buzzing bees and vicious plucking made their appearance towards the end of work, accompanied all the while with simultaneous vigorous head nodding.