If there were a Premier League for orchestras, then the RTÉ NSO would be having a blinder of a season, judging from its regular sold-out Friday night concerts and the quality of the musicianship on offer – particularly under its new principal guest conductor, Nathalie Stutzmann. And tonight’s concert was a prime example of that – a sumptuous programme, an exciting soloist, and an orchestra that was utterly sensitive to Stutzmann’s masterful conception of the music.

Nathalie Stutzmann
© Simon Fowler

The programme was unashamedly Romantic and, unsurprisingly, utterly appetizing. The opening overture to Lalo’s opera Le Roi d’Ys was the unknown, an evocative piece that worked perfectly at whetting the audience’s appetite for more. The rest of the pieces on the programme were old favourites: Elgar’s broodingly passionate Cello Concerto, followed by Beethoven’s glorious and powerful Fifth Symphony.

Hushed and atmospheric, the plaintive clarinet hovered poignantly amidst the lush, fraught harmonies at the opening of Lalo’s Le Roi d’Ys overture. With infinite care, the NSO whispered the end of their phrases, making the furious D minor outburst all the more impressive. Stutzmann garnered a warm, lush sound from the strings, while the brass gave of their best. Stutzmann is a master at building up the excitement: here she tightly controlled the dynamics before letting the musical climax shoot forth with excitement. Kudos goes to principal cellist Martin Johnson whose solo was soulfully expressed.

Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E minor was written at the end of World War I and towards the latter stages of the composer’s career. Perhaps these two factors inform both its effulgent lyricism and its intense brooding. German cellist Alban Gerhardt’s approach to this concerto struck a rewarding balance between passionate yearning and driving the music forward, ever conscious of its final goal. From the passionate double-stops of the opening, Gerhardt made his cello sing, employing a wide, intense vibrato. The accompaniment by the NSO was sensitively handled, the orchestra always listening to the cello’s mellow voice and adjusting their dynamic range accordingly. Gerhardt’s laser-like intonation was particularly impressive as he soared stratospherically.

In the third movement Lento, the orchestra and cellist breathed as one, creating a moment of serene beauty. Gerhardt’s top notes shone with ethereal splendour, while the stillness he imbued his pianissimos with were equally impressive. In the final movement, he navigated the virtuosic rhapsodic passages with all the agility and sure-footedness of a Chamonix goat. 

Daunting is one of the words that springs to mind in trying to tackle one of the world’s best-loved symphonies – Beethoven’s Symphony no. 5 in C minor. Everyone knows it and a large portion of the tonight’s audience, I suspect, have their favourite recording of it too. Stutzmann grasped us by the lapels with her interpretation of this great work, with a first movement that pullulated with energy and dramatic tension. Even in the gentler sections, these were not moments of indulgent relief but they had a hint of menace lurking never too far from the surface.

There was a matter-of-fact approach to the second movement Andante as the variation passed from cello to violin with the pizzicato buoying up the melody. The wallop of the off-beat accent on the timpani was thoroughly in the jocose Beethovenian style. The “mysterious and uncanny” Scherzo possessed an air of expectancy and the quieter moments contrasted with the sharp outbursts of fury. Stutzmann kept the lid firmly on the dynamic of pianissimo, making the music bubble with tension.

For the finale, the brass stood up and gave a triumphant announcement of the march. Here the outer section thrilled with joyous energy and chirpy antiphonal moments. The piccolo shrilled its protestations of innocence before the brilliant tour de force of the Presto section. Stutzmann and the NSO played their hearts out, bringing the concert to a very satisfying conclusion.