Nathalie Stutzmann reminded everyone of why she is one of Dublin's favourite visitors as she kicked off her third season as Principal Guest Conductor of the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra with a high-octane programme of Brahms, Beethoven and Strauss.

Boris Giltburg © Sasha Gusov
Boris Giltburg
© Sasha Gusov

The concert opened with three of Brahms's Hungarian Dances from the first and more spirited of the composer's two collections of Magyar-themed music. Stutzmann attacked No. 1 at a somewhat rapid tempo, which the NSO's musicians took in stride. No. 4 was suitably mawkish – that's what Brahms composed – while No. 5, the most popular of the lot, was fiery and snappy, like Hungarian paprika. That said, there are nuances in these pieces that can make them more entertaining, but were missing in this outing.

That could not be said for the astounding performance that came next of Beethoven's Piano Concerto no. 4 in G major, with the Moscow-born Israeli soloist Boris Giltburg at the helm of the hall's Steinway. Alone among Beethoven's five piano concertos, the Fourth opens with the piano playing solo for five bars before the orchestra takes over. It sets up a relationship that suggests the pianist is in the driver's seat, and Giltburg on this evening was very much in control, with Stutzmann and the NSO backing his every move. Giltburg's touch, on those dramatic first chords that are almost as indelible as the opening of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, was delicate but powerful. But it wasn't until his next entrance, 70 bars later, that we knew we were in for a treat. Giltburg's control and precision in the run of semiquavers was breathtaking, like liquid silver pouring out of the Steinway. Then we were off, to marvel at how he tackled and conquered every one of Beethoven's increasingly difficult demands – runs of triplets, a passage of red-hot demisemiquavers – with power, precision and passion.

Giltburg got his chance to display his more lyrical side in the soulful second movement which, in less than five minutes, creates an entirely different sound world. Here the orchestra's strings are playing in octaves while the soloist is given something like a compressed slow movement from one of Beethoven's sonatas. Liszt, it is said, likened this movement to Orpheus taming the wild beasts and if there were any such in the NCH audience, they were turned lamblike by Giltburg's exquisite playing. The concerto ends with a romp, with Beethoven once again putting the pianist through his paces. Giltburg tackled it all – the forays into the pianistic stratosphere, the lyrical passages harking back to the second movement, the chromatic runs – with passion, dexterity and charm. A memorable performance.

After the interval, Stutzmann took us to a very different musical planet, the world of Nietzche and his Übermensch by way of Richard Strauss's tone poem Also sprach Zarathustra. The opening "Sunrise" passage is widely known from 2001 – A Space Odyssey, but to hear it played live, with a big orchestra and concert organ, is to marvel once again at how Strauss knew his stuff when it came to orchestration. The remainder of the piece is far more complex and dark. Stutzmann navigated well the twists and turns, but still it was a relief to get to the penultimate "Dance Song" where co-leader Elaine Clark shone in Strauss' mocking Viennese waltz. The finale leaves the listener hanging between two keys, Strauss at his most ambiguous, but for their fine work, the NSO and Stutzmann earned a resounding ovation. A great beginning to her third year, and may there be many more.

****1