If last week’s two soloists in Bach’s Double Violin Concerto was novel, then RTÉ’s choice of a trio of soloists in Beethoven’s Triple Concerto for Violin, Cello and Piano in C major in last night’s concert raised the stakes even further. It is amusing to speculate how far one could go with this: any advances on Schoenberg’s Concerto for String Quartet and Orchestra anyone? Last night was also a concert of substitutions: conductor Thomas Kemp replaced Jean Deroyer and cellist Tim Gill stepped in for Adi Tal who was injured. Despite the chopping and changing, there was much to please in the musicianship and performance of all the works.

Thomas Kemp
© Rita Flanagan

The programming was decidedly romantic and original, featuring some of the lesser heard works of this era. The seething nationalism of Sibelius’ Finlandia married well with the contrapuntal demands of Beethoven’s Triple Concerto. Not unlike his Manfred Symphony which the RTÉ NSO performed six weeks ago, it is rare to hear Tchaikovsky’s “The Symphony of Life” – a might-have-been Symphony no. 7.

It’s all about the brass and percussion really in Sibelius’ Finlandia. For such a short piece they play a dominant role and in last night’s performance they were on top form. The opening tuba and trombone parts were terrifically menacing with blistering crescendos, so much so that we craved the peaceful answering of the woodwind. Kemp kept a tight rein on the orchestra, with sharp rhythmic drive amidst sinister brass interruptions and breathless strings. At times later on, it was too brass and percussion top-heavy, both sections presumably excited about their chance to shine, but the tranquil, hymn-like tune on the woodwind and the later on the violins was beautifully shaped and poised.

Written between his Eroica Symphony and his opera Fidelio in 1803-4, Beethoven’s Triple Concerto had to wait four years before it was first performed. Its demands, both musical and technical, are considerable, especially for the cello. Coupled with the challenge of assembling a trio of soloists brave enough to tackle it, it is not too surprising that it is little heard. A great pity since it is a glorious work and one that bears repeated listening. On this occasion violinist Darragh Morgan and pianist Mary Dullea of the Fidelio Trio and cellist Tim Gill joined the orchestra as soloists.

Fidelio Trio
© Eoin Schmidt-Martin

It was Gill who impressed the most last night, from his expressive opening to his soaring notes in the development section, each one vibrating with passion. Morgan had some good dialogue with the cello but his sound in general was too thin, lacking a more fulsome lyricism. The piano was positioned at an odd angle so that Dullea had her back to both Gill and Morgan. Arguably the piano part lacks the fireworks of Beethoven’s other piano concerti, but Dullea, while showing fine chamber music ability, did little to highlight her part. She was surprisingly quiet, with the orchestra covering her sound too easily.

We could luxuriate in the rich cello voice of the second movement Largo while in the final Rondo alla Polacca there were moments of crisp rhythm from the orchestra, brilliant filigree on the violin alternating with the cello. While there were fine moments of dialogue between soloists and the chamber music element was not to be faulted, overall a coherent and cohesive vision was lacking.

After the interval, we had the intriguing pleasure of hearing Tchaikovsky’s what-might-have-been Symphony no. 7. It was abandoned by the master in 1892 but fellow Russian Bogatïrev completed it in the 1950s from the composer’s extensive sketches. As a reconstruction it is fascinating; it possesses all those wonderful Tchaikovsky tropes: surging melodies, exciting off-beat brass interjections, jagged rhythms and a manic finale. And yet, apart from the delectable second movement which is inspired, something crucial is missing. It reminded me of those alcohol-free beers which taste exactly the same but somehow miss the essence of drinking a pint.

Kemp created an exciting sound world as if it was the real McCoy. The strings played with great rhythmic vitality amidst the swirl of excitement of the first movement while the brass blazed forth. The second movement featured plaintive cellos and poetic musings from the woodwind while the violins were rich with vibrato. Kemp captured the whimsical alongside the raucous energy of the finale. Crashing symbols and scurrying strings brought the symphony and the concert as a whole to a convincing close.