It would be hard to imagine a more auspicious start to the season last night: one of the world’s leading orchestras the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (RCO) under its recently appointed chief conductor Daniele Gatti, performing a generously long concert of Romantic composers topped off by the exciting Argentinian cellist Sol Gabetta. As part of its educational outreach programme, around 30 very fortunate players from the National Youth Orchestra of Ireland were invited to perform alongside the RCO for the first piece, Weber’s Oberon Overture.

Daniele Gatti © Pablo Facci
Daniele Gatti
© Pablo Facci
Clocking in under the two-and-half hour mark, the programme explored the gamut of Romantic music: from its early exuberance in Weber’s overture, through Schumann’s passionate lyricism to the grandeur and power of Bruckner’s symphony. While the period remained the same, Gatti was able to draw on the sophisticated sound palettes of the RCO to create different sound worlds for each of the works.

Weber’s Oberon depicts an enchanted kingdom, where the fate of sprites, elves and fairies mingle with that of mortals. The horn’s opening mellow call possessed an otherworldly utterance and this was answered by luminous strings. The violins were light and airy while there was a richness to the violas’ and cellos’ tone. The lively sections pulsated with energy and with cheery goodwill. What was so impressive here was the ability of Gatti to arch the phrases exquisitely with a small wave of his hand. A punchy end and the RCO, ably aided by the NYOI, impressed very much.

Fresh from her successful opening night at the BBC Proms, Argentinian cellist Sol Gabetta gave a thoughtful, poetic account of Schumann’s Cello concerto in A minor. The sound she elicits from her instrument – a noble Matteo Goffriller cello – is undeniably small but exquisitely beautiful. This was most evident in the simple melodies of the second movement where the golden voice of the cello seemed to hover delectably in the ether, each phrase melting into the next. In contrast to such ethereal moments, Gabetta imbued the explosive, high notes of the first movement with a passionate intensity and an electrifying vibrato. Gatti and the RCO responded with an elegant, sensitive accompaniment to the intimate sounds of the cello, striking a fine balance of sounding neither overpowering nor lacklustre, but provided enough fire and energy for a cracking rendition. The finale sparkled with wit and liveliness and Gabetta dispatched the ricochets with ease and the perilously high notes with laser-like accuracy. Gabetta chose Casal’s Song of the Birds as an encore which allowed her to cast a spell over the audience with its reflective, gently-breathed phrases and the ebb and flow of its dynamics.

Bruckner’s Symphony no. 4 is one of his most frequently performed symphonies and despite a lengthy period of gestation between original composition (1874) and first performance (1881), it was indeed this symphony which helped establish him in the eyes of the Viennese pubic. Like much of Bruckner’s symphonies, this work is plagued by extensive revisions and rewriting on the suggestion of friends and colleagues who wanted to make it more performable. Nicknamed the “Romantic” by the composer himself, the movements’ own subtitles give a guide as to its programmatic contents; that of medieval chivalry, hunting and so forth.

If the movements own subtitles were not enough, the RCO’s vivid playing would have sufficed. Focussing on the big picture, Gatti’s vision for Bruckner was suitably monumental. With the most laconic of hand movements, Gatti proved time and again the economic principle of minimal expenditure on gestures for maximum returns. This allowed him to concentrate on creating a truly Brucknerian ‘cathedral of sound’: from tremulous strings and shy, vernal utterances on the woodwind to huge waves of sound cascading from the whole orchestra – the E flat minor section in the final movement was particularly memorable. Special mention goes to the brass section which plays such a vital role in this work. The opening horn was filled with a haunting melancholy while in the third movement “Hunt Scherzo” the muscular interjections from the trumpets, trombones blazed forth. Later on in this movement as the enormous climax burst forth with explosive energy, there was a wonderful dialogue between woodwind and brass while the final movement featured excellent meaty sound from the brass.

The cellos too impressed with their soulful melody in the second movement while the violas skilfully crafted their phrases too. Once again, when the horns took over the main melody from the cellos it was in haunting imitation. Gatti whipped up the tension so that when the Neapolitan chord gave way to the tonic at the end of the whole work it was an incredibly powerful release of energy with the most extraordinary effect. A truly sublime ending to a magnificent opening concert of the season