Russian violinist Alena Baeva told an interviewer for The Irish Times ahead of her National Concert Hall appearance on Friday that as a teenager she fell in love with the Brahms Double Concerto for Violin and Cello. Her performance of Brahms' Violin Concerto in D major with the National Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Mihhail Gerts showed she loves that too. Her sensuous and lyrical rendition was complemented by the orchestra, expanded almost to falling off the stage, in a rousing romp through Richard Strauss' rarely played tone poem, Sinfonia domestica.

Alena Baeva
© Andrej Grilc

Brahms' concerto was famously described by the conductor Hans von Bülow as having been written against the violin, due to its complexity. Baeva, with her supple style, attentively partnered by the NSO, made it sound a natural fit for ensemble and soloist. Baeva's particular strength lay in teasing out the complex and sometimes searingly beautiful themes with crystal clarity. Hers was not the brashest or loudest of tones, but her technique seemed to polish every note and send it out to the audience like a lustrous gem. The appearance in the first movement of the second subject had all the soothing qualities of a lullaby. And Baeva brought awe-inspiring technique to bear on the movement's fiendishly complicated cadenza.

The third movement, which gets played in rotation as one of classical music's greatest hits, was as rousing as need be. But I thought Baeva really shone in the Adagio, where the violin has to wrestle back control from the sheer beauty of the oboe's opening theme. Baeva, from her soaring entry that picks up that same theme, aided by delicate accompaniment from the NSO, made it her own, and kept us entranced for the duration of what are some of the most moving eight minutes in the Romantic repertoire.

Baeva, who now lives in Luxembourg, played Ysaÿe's L'aurore, from his Fifth Violin Sonata as an encore, prefaced by her praising Ireland for taking in thousands of Ukrainian refugees. “The darkest moment is before the sunrise,” she said. “We just have to remember that there is light after darkness.”

After the interval, an NSO on steroids, with the band expanded by two harps, four saxophones, assorted brass and woodwinds and enough percussion to impress Berlioz, tackled Strauss' musical depiction of his own domestic household. Before opening the door on the Strauss family, Gerts deployed the orchestra for a quick rundown of the themes, including three for the husband ranging from easy-going to fiery, two for the wife and one for the child at rest, and another squalling. The fact that the father's themes pretty much dominate the piece from start to finish puts it on the wrong side of the PC ledger, but there's enough gorgeous and spectacular music – often in variations on recognisable Strauss motifs – to make it well worth the NSO's efforts to assemble the huge cast. Particularly effective was the Passion interlude that follows the first chiming of a bell to denote 7pm. The sleep that ensues is delightfully disrupted by the piccolo... whether a happy dream or a nightmare is up to the listener to determine. Leader Tamas Kocsis handled the half-dozen vignettes for solo violin with aplomb.

One suspects this particular Strauss work won't be back to the NCH anytime soon, but as a sonic spectacular to complement a gorgeous Brahms concerto, it was the perfect partner.

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