Three of the four works tonight evoked zany and fantastical worlds, and the vivacious Cornelius Meister, guest conductor at the Kennedy tonight, seemed a particularly adept interpreter, bringing out the playful, mischievous, and even dark side of all three. The particular highlight was Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks. Who can help but love Strauss’ madcap Till, as he prances around, announcing his presence with the oft-repeated cheeky horn call, and tears through villages, cocking a snook at all respectable folk before at last he gets his comeuppance? The National Symphony Orchestra’s rendition conveyed this most dynamic musical personality wonderfully well, through fine gradations of volume and tone, wallowing in the devil-may-care loud impudence to laughter-smothering hush of the tip-toe retreats, from the furore of his eventual capture to his death roar. One can’t keep a good man like Till down, even at the block. We had wonderful playing all through, emotionally authentic playing, and full of verve.

Cornelius Meister © Marco Borggreve
Cornelius Meister
© Marco Borggreve

Before that, we heard Dvořák’s The Noon Witch and Janáček’s Suite from The Cunning Little Vixen. Meister introduced Dvořák's story of domestic incident gone horribly wrong largely as a result of praeternatural presence (but perhaps also maternal over-anxiety), with some gusto, before launching into this evocative tone poem. It was easy to imagine the household scene –the bustle of the mother, the whines, stomps and pouts of her tot – evoked in a flurry of little details of tone shading, volume and melody. The macabre end – when the father comes home to find the child dead in his fainted mother’s arms – was extremely well-timed and brilliantly built up into horrific volume.

Collated in 1928 by conductor Václav Talich out of fragments of the original opera, The Cunning Little Vixen presents an engagingly disparate mix of overlapping textures and disjointed themes. Meister went all with this, and made the most of its fragmentary character, holding up instruments mid-flight with a stopping hand, causing climactic sound to dissipate immediately into nothingness, balancing the playful and the eerie soundscapes which succeeded each other without apparent logic. This was Janáček’s fantastical world of nature – bird calls, folk songs, native rhythms – which he was so keen to evoke.

In the midst of all this middle-European fixation on eccentric worlds, there was an injection of rapturous, other worldly romanticism in Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor. The smooth tone and long continuous bow strokes of Hilary Hahn were a signally attractive quality of her interpretation. The fluency of her playing, the suppleness and ease of her technique were truly masterly. Meister mediated the orchestra to her, and mediated her to the orchestra in a way that I found rather lovely.

For all the beauty of lyrical tone, however, I confess to having felt a little something lacking. In the first movement, the impeccable refinement of her playing excluded the expression of much convincing passion. The element of Sturm und Drang was missing: it was all rather safe, without edge. In one sense, this speaks of her effortless mastery over the work and an impressive lack of self-indulgence. But as lyricism is shown up most of all here by contrast, I thought the absence was indeed a pity. It is impossible to make the lovely second movement Andante sound matter-of-fact, but we were certainly on the perkier end of the emotional range. The mellifluous sound Hahn makes ought to make for pathos, but it didn’t. I found the third movement, where Hahn treated us to dazzlingly light and frolicsome playing the most convincing of all: it was tossed off with a bravura which was breathtakingly impressive.