Last night’s concert had it all: a deliciously attractive programme, a new chief conductor at the top of his game, inspiring an orchestra to great heights, and a soloist who combined great sensitivity with improvisatory brilliance. Each item on the programme (and off it) offered excitement and kept the audience enthralled, so much so, that at the end I was left itching for more.

Gabriela Montero © Shelley Mosman
Gabriela Montero
© Shelley Mosman

Jaime Martín, once an acclaimed flautist, was elected chief conductor of the RTÉ NSO last September. Even in this short space of time, I am very impressed by how well he is shaping the sound of the orchestra and by how energised and enthused the players are with him. The Overture in C by Fanny Mendelssohn is a piece of great charm, written in the early Romantic style, brimming with energy and life, and illustrating what a talented family the Mendelssohns were. It also left one wondering what might have been had Fanny been promoted and encouraged as much as her brother, Felix. The velvet, dulcet tones of the strings immediately established a calm, peaceful ambiance. The ensuing Allegro burst forth with an explosion of sound, the chattering semiquavers possessing a charming, Mozartean vibrancy.

Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Montero then played Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 20 in D minor, K466. Martín instantly captured the mysteriousness of the off-beat orchestral theme while there was a satisfying meaty sound in the forte moments that followed. Poised and unpretentious, Montero shaped her opening statements gracefully, imbuing them with poignancy. The interjections with the orchestra were beautifully phrased, the dynamics finely graded. The semiquaver scale and arpeggio passages rippled along, her tone always rounded and fulsome. It was playing of great sensitivity, searing musicianship, yet with the minimum of fuss. She demonstrated some of her improvisatory/compositional brilliance with her own cadenza which highlighted various themes with some satisfying Beethovenian chordal moments.

Montero’s tone in the Romanza was warm and lyrical while in the dramatic middle section (Sturm und Drang) there was a kaleidoscope of different colours between the constantly shifting major and minor keys. Scarcely without a pause between movements, Montero launched into the arpeggio opening with élan, her fingers sparkling over the scales and filigree. It was a masterful interpretation.

Montero is famed for her improvisatory skills and, as we were very much hoping, she asked the audience for a tune after the applause had died down. The Mountains of Mourne was eventually selected which we sang for her. Then, in the style of Bach, she improvised on the final phrase of this, sung in a contrapuntal manner. In she slipped through various keys, at times, fugue-like, her originality never hesitating once. Then, all of a sudden, the mood changed and sprung jazzy rhythms enveloped the phrase in a ragtime style. The improvisation lasted at least seven minutes, if not more, and ended with brilliant, virtuosic, fortissimo chords. It was a thrilling and utterly amazing display.

It would be hard to top that first half and yet Martín and the NSO gave an equally thrilling rendition of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony. The first movement opened with a fresh sweep, triumphant brass alternating with exhilarating semiquavers on the strings. The strings, taking their cue from the leader, played with huge passion, communicating with one another as if it were a chamber orchestra. The music surged with life and vigour. Martín even managed to make the repeated discords sound outrageous so fresh was the music-making.

The second movement possessed a mournful poignancy, the later double fugue making its agonising journey to its inevitable climax. Martín injected a shot of caffeine into the third movement, as it bounced and bubbled along with all the excitement of undergrads during freshers’ week. The horns impressed here with their wonderful, joyful hunting theme. There was humour to the pizzicato in the finale with typical Beethovenian sforzando blasts on timpani and brass. The main theme had a rich, fulsome sound to it. It was obvious that the orchestra was in its element, loving the dramatic gestures of Martín. It all made for an exhilarating performance, bringing the concert to a very satisfying close.

*****