Part of the continued success and popularity of the Friday night concerts is the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra's ability to bring in the big names. And they don’t come much bigger than Maxim Vengerov, Russian violinist supreme and more recently conductor. Vengerov always draws a huge crowd in Dublin, the world and his wife came along, packing the hall to the rafters. Joining the maestro was young Irish violinist Patrick Rafter and chief oboist of the NSO, Matthew Manning.

Maxim Vengerov and Patrick Rafter with the RTÉ NSO
© Frances Marshall | Marshall Light Studio

While last night’s concert was billed as a Vengerov concert, the programme was attractive, balanced and in parts novel. The three different types of Bach concerto made for a varied first half, while the romantic surge of Dvořák’s beloved Symphony no. 9 in E minor was always going to be a crowd-pleaser.

It was a joy to hear Bach’s Double Concerto for two violins in D minor, a work not often performed live in Dublin, but is nonetheless well known thanks largely to the celebrated Oistrakh-Menuhin recording of it. The Vengerov-Rafter duo was a delight to behold and matched by a sensitive, pared-back RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra. Rafter, who studies under Vengerov in Switzerland, proved that this was a partnership of equals, and while there some obvious similarities of technique and mannerisms, there was a deep, musical communication between the two. The opening movement showcased this good dialogue between the two soloists but it was not until the expressive Adagio that both got to shine: Rafter’s deep, lower melody line intertwined with the gossamer tone of Vengerov’s upper line. This was an emotional, almost seductive reading of the second movement that was quite thrilling. The third movement set off with great vigour and vim amidst busy semiquavers and lively camaraderie on stage. The double stops provided wonderful moment of musical humour between the soloists.

Vengerov was both soloist and conductor for the Violin Concerto in A minor. The lively outer movements saw Vengerov frequently move his head off the chin-rest for emphasis. The sleek velvet sound he coaxed out of his Stradivarius for the second movement was exquisite though at times the maestro was not beyond making the odd lapse in intonation. He gave a fine-spirited account of the third movement featuring delicate filigree and wonderfully supported throughout by an ever-responsive RTÉ NSO.

The final Bach piece that concluded the first half was the Concerto for oboe, violin and string orchestra in C minor. Joining Vengerov was the ever-sensitive, principal oboist of the NSO Matthew Manning. Lovely, liquid notes emanated from the oboe and made the dialogue with Vengerov sparkle with joy. With bird-like trills and sensitively phrased melodies, Manning matched his sound world to that of the violinist. The second movement was delightfully poignant. Starting quite simply on the oboe, the melody interwove between the two, each phrase delicately shaped and breathed.

The subtitle of Dvořák’s Ninth Symphony holds the key to the explanation of this work: “from the New World”. Dvořák spent three years as director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York from 1892 and within a month of his arrival had launched into the composition of his ninth symphony. While the work contains influence of American folk music, it could be as easily considered a longing for his Czech homeland.

The soft cellos that breathed their opening were delicious while the sharp interjections of the whole RTÉ NSO in the Allegro molto was full, rich and portentous. Vengerov as conductor, while undoubtedly lively at times, was a controlled presence on the podium in general, eliciting the best from the orchestra but never being sucked into the maelstrom of the music. Perhaps it is his star-quality or his magnetic personality, but the RTÉ NSO responded to him, following his lightest touch with great alacrity. The ending of the first movement was terrifically dramatic: razor sharp chords which echoed in the silence of the rests.

The dark ominous opening of the second movement was dispersed by the seductive sounds of the cor anglais. There were the odd lapse in tuning among the winds, but the RTÉ NSO responded to Vengerov’s vision of this haunting movement with its Brahmsian elegance and introspective calm. Vengerov kept the rhythm taut, the dynamics well delineated in an incisive account of the third movement Scherzo. The trio exuded pastoral calm with vernal orchestral colouring. The finale was as invigorating as it was exciting, the RTÉ NSO providing their customary polished warmth.