“To lose one might be regarded as a misfortune, to lose both looks like carelessness.” Lady Bracknell’s quip seemed to apply rather aptly to the Dublin NCH’s dilemma of having to replace both conductor and pianist for tonight’s concert. It could also be just the luck for a concert scheduled on Friday 13th. However, we were richly rewarded by the replacements, conductor Jaime Martín and pianist Boris Giltburg, the latter particularly impressing with his thoughtful musicianship.

Boris Giltburg © Jean-Marc Gourdon
Boris Giltburg
© Jean-Marc Gourdon

The programming was innovative, eschewing the traditional second half symphony and opting instead for Schoenberg’s clever orchestral arrangement of Brahms’ Piano Quartet no. 1 in G minor. Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto no. 1 in B flat minor was the hook to draw in the crowds, while a dectet started the concert with another arrangement (this time by George Benjamin) of Bach’s Canon and Fugue from The Art of Fugue.

This opening arrangement by Benjamin was something of a damp squib. Given that there were only ten musicians, I felt the presence of conductor Martín was de trop, inhibiting the dynamic communication and flow within this intimate grouping. Scored for four violins, two violas, a cello, a flute and two horns, Benjamin was commissioned in 2007 to make this orchestral arrangement of Bach’s Art of Fugue. While the liveliness of the opening canon was well captured, there were some initial balance issues with the horns.

The contrasting slow movement fugue featured some gentle plucking and long, reflective notes on the horn, solemnly drawn out. There was a mournfulness to the flute’s contrapuntal melody above while the violas’ harmonics lent an ominous air to this movement. Despite some attempt by leader Helena Wood to communicate with the others, the overall effect lacked sparkle.

Ranking alongside his ballet music or Romeo and Juliet fantasy in popularity, Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto is a staple of every pianist’s repertoire. A war horse of the international piano competitions, it suffers from the fate of being played louder and faster by each successive pianist. It was something of a surprise therefore to witness the warm sound that Giltburg elicited from the celebrated chordal opening, forcing neither sound nor pace. At this slightly slower tempo Giltburg allowed us to luxuriate in the familiar harmonies, suffusing the stiller passages with a dreamy mysticism. Playful when needed, he dabbed the pedal sparingly to allow the clarity of the filigree to glisten. This thoughtful musician proved he was no slouch at the many thundering octave passages that pepper this piece. It was akin to watching someone press the “sports mode” button in a zippy car and experience the instant thrust and power of what you had previously considered a mild, eco-friendly engine. In the cadenza, Giltburg shaped the melody up on top with the trills shimmering below.

The diaphanous flute melody was matched by the pearly pianissimo of the piano in the second movement while the Giltburg injected fire and energy into the thrilling final movement. Once again, the second subject was sensitively shaped while the scalic filigree sparkled, jewel-like. In the notorious double octave section just before the climax Giltberg might have given even the legendary Horowitz a run for his money. In a slightly uncharacteristic moment of haste the final page was taken too quickly, leaving both orchestra and conductor playing catch-up.

While Brahms-Schoenberg’s Piano Quartet no. 1 in G minor might be considered as orchestrated chamber music, it could just as easily be viewed as Brahms’ Fifth Symphony. Schoenberg’s arrangement does have its critics and certainly it features some uncharacteristic instruments – the xylophone in the final movement being the most obvious and egregious. However, it is a remarkably vibrant work, ingeniously orchestrated and breathing new life into the original chamber music work.

Martín’s vision for the performance kept this dual trajectory firmly in mind as he grasped the urgency of the music with bold, muscular strokes. The sweep of the strings in the opening Allegro was matched by a fulsome brass and at times a passionate explosion on the trombone.

Much commendation goes to the hornist for his solo in the Intermezzo, while the whole orchestra gave its all in the decadently lush texture of the third movement Andante. Martín elicited a varied tonal palette among the string and woodwind section here. The final movement carried all before it with its breathless gypsy rhythms and boisterous melodies, and Martín’s approach to hamming up the gypsy element suited this exaggerated transcription. The energy was palpable as it rippled through the strings in breathless haste, while the sonic boom of the brass at the end brought the concert to a satisfying conclusion.