Conducting is a demonstrative art form but rarely have I seen it taken to such an extreme as in last night’s concert. At times, shadow boxing, at other times leaping up into the air with excitement, young Italian conductor Daniele Rustioni’s antics on the podium was entertainment in itself. Not that this detracted from the music-making: Rustioni’s chivvying of the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra yielded riveting results. Tchaikovsky’s emotional Symphony no. 4 in F minor was milked for all it was worth. Ditto Shostakovich Piano concerto no. 2 in F major where the partnership with Russian pianist Alexander Toradze crackled with enough electricity to power a small Soviet town.

Daniele Rustioni © Davide Cerati
Daniele Rustioni
© Davide Cerati

There was much to enjoy in the opening suite Ritratto di Don Quixote by contemporary Italian composer Goffredo Petrassi. The music of this quirky portrait of Quixote was garnered from Petrassi’s one-act ballet and depicts some of the vainglorious adventures of the hero, punctuated by intermezzos representing his servant Sancho Panza and Dulcinea. Rustioni, with a sharp eye for the ironic, imbued the music with great wit and character. The NSO responded in fine form: elusive strings, hushed woodwind, shrill trumpets and zany xylophones all played their part in conjuring up the vivid episodes of Don Quixote.

Shostakovich’s Second Piano Concerto is a far cry from the brooding intensity of his symphonic works. Written as a birthday present for his 19-year-old son, it brims over with infectious good humour. In direct contrast to Rustioni’s highly demonstrative conducting, seasoned pianist Toradze sat with an impressive immobility at the piano but caught the work’s jocularity to a tee. The first movement set off a jaunty pace the piano casting a great stillness with its simple melody in octaves. Toradze impressed with his wide-ranging dynamic control: the most ethereal of pianissimos carried to the back of the hall while the powerful double octave and chordal passages created a thunderous effect. The orchestra, ever sharp, responded in kind, whispering at times or giving the Stalinist propaganda-styled music a right old welly.

The second movement was achingly beautiful all the way. From the touching tenderness of the orchestral opening to the seductive surrender into C major at the pianist’s entry, this was playing that touched one’s soul. Within a twinkle, the urgency of the finale swept all of the romantic fervour away and we were whisked away on a swashbuckling tour de force. Toradze’s pellucid filigree sparkled brilliantly while the huge attack from the whole orchestra whooshed up the excitement by several notches.

And just when I was thinking one couldn’t ask for much more from a concert, then Tchaikovsky's Fourth happened. From the word go, Rustioni poured his heart and soul into this passionate work, producing a symphony of majesty and fervour. Much kudos goes to the brass both for their pinpoint tuning all throughout and their powerful stridency at the opening fanfare. Responding sforzando from the rest of the orchestra had the power and shock of a gunshot. Swelling crescendos of the turbulent melody added to the sense of unease conjured by Rustioni.

The forlorn oboe solo which opened the Andantino was echoed by tender cellos until the sweep of the violins added a luxurious depth to it. Humour and wit were the watchwords for the scherzo as the string section left down their bows to pluck their way through this movement. The antiphonal arpeggios were delightfully whimsical while the conductor’s indulged in the most miniscule of movements here.

The sonic boom of the cymbals and the flurry of bravura from the strings and the finale was on its way. Here the rhythm was taut and the articulation was as sharp as a Victorinox blade. Rustioni brought the good cheer and joviality to the fore and not even the fateful strident brass towards then end could overshadow it.