Programming Sergei Rachmaninov's dark tone poem The Isle of the Dead and the even darker choral symphony The Bells in one concert may sound like a sure way to plunge an audience into despair, but Estonian conductor Mihhail Gerts, a fine trio of soloists, the National Symphony Chorus and the National Symphony Orchestra made it a season finale to cheer.

Mihhail Gerts conducts the National Symphony Orchestra
© Mark Stedman

The various sections of the NSO meshed seamlessly for a thrilling performance of the concert opener, The Isle of the Dead. Rachmaninov was inspired by the Swiss symbolist painter Arnold Böcklin's painting of a boat with a single passenger and what appears to be a coffin in the bow being rowed across a dark expanse of water to a craggy islet lined with cypress trees. 

The piece opened with low strings, timpani and harp in 5/8 time, evoking a boat moving across water, and Gerts and the NSO made us feel like we were on board. A horn solo briefly pierced the gloom, but there was little respite as the boat approached the islet, where a superb brass ensemble announced the journey's emotional end. The NSO put its heart and soul into that climactic moment, which winds down with the Dies irae intruding softly, but insistently. Leader Elaine Clarke played a wistful solo on the violin, after which the boat begins its return voyage – again in 5/8 time. Riveting from beginning to end.

As if that weren't soul-searing enough, Gerts followed up in the second half with Rachmaninov's almost contemporaneous, but perhaps even more chilling, choral symphony. The text was by Russian poet Konstantin Balmont's “re-interpretation” of Edgar Allan Poe's The Bells. Rachmaninov said the poem spoke to him because life in Russia was lived to the sound of sleigh bells, wedding bells, church bells and more.

The sound palette for is similar to The Isle of the Dead, but amped up by an array of bells and gongs, and the 150-strong National Symphony Chorus. The choristers were in splendid form, especially in the third movement where, from their perch in the Choir Balcony, they struck fear into the hearts of the audience with their refrain: “Oh, the bells, bells, bells! What a tale their terror tells...”

Mihhail Gerts with soloists and the National Symphony Chorus and Orchestra
© Mark Stedman

The soloists were also top notch. Ukrainian tenor Valentyn Dytiuk handled the deceptively sunny opening movement with a lovely, light touch. Estonian soprano Mirjam Mesak provided a dreamy, creamy tone for the second movement where the bells are associated with happiness and weddings. And Ukrainian baritone Andrei Bondarenko did not flinch at the heavy lifting in the finale where the people “that dwell up in the steeple” and toll the bells “are neither brute nor human – they are ghouls.” Powerful stuff, powerfully sung.

There was some respite from the black mood as Gerts introduced the NCH audience to a piece by fellow Estonian, Eduard Tubin (1905-82). I cannot recall ever hearing a piece by Tubin at the NCH, but his 1944 Sinfonietta on Estonian Motifs was a perfect hors d'oeuvres. It does for Estonian folk tunes what Enescu did with his Romanian Rhapsodies, or Bartók with his Romanian Folk Dances. Tubin's tunes are less memorable than Bartók's or Enescu's, but in the hands of Gerts and the NSO, they were charming and playful. More Tubin, please.