There was something life affirming about the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra's season-ending programme of Brahms' infrequently heard choral funeral song Nänie and Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. The NSO is an orchestra whose future hangs under a very big question mark. It has been without a principal conductor since 2016 and its numbers are down about 25 percent. A recent independent review commissioned by RTÉ recommended that the state broadcaster either enlist the government to fund the NSO or consider disbanding one of RTE's two orchestras... with the likely fall guy presumed to be the NSO.

Nathalie Stutzmann © Simon Fowler
Nathalie Stutzmann
© Simon Fowler

With those black clouds hanging over the proceedings, it was a marvel that the sold-out finale was the thumping success it was. For that, we have not only to thank the players of the NSO but also the 125-member RTÉ Philharmonic Choir, four excellent soloists and the magic baton of much loved principal guest conductor Nathalie Stutzmann.

The programming was clever on Stutzmann's part. Regular Dublin concertgoers could not recall a performance of the Ninth within the last 20 years or so and almost no one had heard the Brahms, so there was a lively sense of expectation. Both pieces require a big choir and both employ poems by Schiller. Nänie comes from the Greco-Roman word naenia, meaning funeral song, and was a ritual lamentation sung by parents on the death of a child. Schiller references three episodes from Greek mythology: Orpheus trying to rescue Eurydice from the Underworld; Aphrodite mourning Adonis; and the failed attempt by Thetis to save her son Achilles.

Brahms composed the piece after the death of his friend, the painter Anselm Feuerbach and it begins with the heartrending line "Even the most beautiful must die!" The Philharmonic Choir, under choirmaster Mark Hindley, handled the music with great delicacy, with none of the storminess to come later in the Beethoven. There was reverence but also power in this performance which gave special meaning to the closing words, "a lament on the lips of loved ones is glorious". And glorious it was, from the lips of the Philharmonic Choir.

The Choral Symphony is light years away from the elegiac mood of Nänie and is perhaps the clearest sign that had he lived into a late period, Beethoven could have given Mahler and other composers who called for big choirs and massive instrumentation a run for their money. As it is, this is one of the most dialectic of major works of music. As the venerable Donald Tovey puts it, "In the Ninth Symphony, Beethoven's plan is to remind us of the first three movements... and to reject them one by one as failing to attain the joy in which he believes. After all three have been rejected, a new theme is to appear, and that theme shall be hailed and sung as the Hymn of Joy."

This is also a symphony where almost everyone on stage is playing all the time, so a conductor has to decide where to lavish her attentions. Stutzmann went for the inner workings of the piece, bringing out a wealth of detail in the woodwinds and the brass. If it seemed at times like the strings had to fend for themselves, they seemed well capable, under the leadership of concertmaster Helena Wood, whose departure from the orchestra was announced on the night.

Which brings us to that remarkable last movement, where the essences of the first three movements are presented for reconsideration and dismissed with peremptory growls from the lower strings. The great dramatic tell is when the first of the male soloists announces the verdict, that the Ode to Joy vanquishes all, and when baritone Leon Košavić nailed his entry, it was thrilling. Immediately afterwards we have the choir singing "Freunde" and we're off.

Ekaterina Siurina's lilting soprano uplifted spirits, alto Lidija Jovanovic and tenor Julien Behr impressed and the RTÉ Choir, perched in the choir balcony, sang to blow off the roof. It is unlikely that anyone went home from this soul-inspiring performance without that famous Ode ringing in his or her head. A night to remember, at the National Concert Hall, and to hope for many more to come with the NSO, whoever may fund it.

****1