The high-vaulted nave of the 13th-century St Canice's Cathedral in Kilkenny made a spectacular setting on Friday for a superb programme of Beethoven and Britten played by the Irish Chamber Orchestra under the baton of violinist/ conductor Thomas Zehetmair. The ICO has flourished in recent years under a string of high-profile conductors, including Jörg Widmann, but few of their concerts have matched the dramatic intensity of this one, the closing orchestral concert of the annual Kilkenny Arts Festival.

Thomas Zehetmair
© Julien Mignot

The concert opened with Beethoven's Coriolan Overture in a reading that struck a nice balance between the driving theme in C minor that denotes the hero, and the tender E flat major theme that, in varying interpretations, represents either Coriolanus's wife or mother. Zehetmair depicted the hero's death at the end with three chords that faded into almost complete inaudibility – a neat trick in the very lively acoustic of the cathedral.

Next up was a knockout performance of Britten's rarely heard Double Concerto in B minor for Violin, Viola and Orchestra. Britten studied viola with his mother, a professional viola player, and wrote this piece at the age of 18, but never orchestrated it. The concerto was completed after his death and had its premiere at the Aldeburgh Festival in 1987.

Zehetmair was joined on stage by his wife, the viola player Ruth Killius, who is a champion of the viola repertoire. Killius not only had to make her viola shine, but also had to hold the performance together by turning the pages of the violin part for Zehetmair while he, on occasion, turned his back to the audience to conduct the orchestra. It was all a bit madcap but the results were wonderful, even if the piece lacks the depth of later Britten. In unison passages, Zehetmair and Killius matched each other note for note, bow stroke for bow stroke, resulting in an extraordinary blending of sound of the two instruments. It might almost have been a concerto for the "violinola".

After the interval, the ICO were back for an Eroica that Zehetmair, with a chamber orchestra at his fingertips, used to highlight the many wonderful details in this piece that sometimes get lost – or perhaps drowned – in performances by larger ensembles. There is, for example, a passage in the fourth movement that Beethoven has orchestrated for an ad hoc quartet – leader, second violin, viola and cello – that became a whole separate sound world in Zehetmair's version. Similarly, a wonderful flute passage in the same movement was allowed to float above the fray, and shine forth in the cathedral acoustics.

A lot of passion, skill and dedication went into the music-making at St Canice's on the night, and the audience went home well pleased.