Friday night’s performance by the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra was not just in the National Concert Hall: it was also recorded live for RTÉ Lyric FM. Despite the additional pressure of a national audience, the orchestra performed to their much-acclaimed high standard. Having taken on such a dramatic programme, involving Strauss’ Don Juan and two extracts from his opera Intermezzo alongside Mozart’s Violin Concerto no. 4 and Sinfonia Concertante for violin and viola, conductor Julian Kuerti led the orchestra through the difficult challenges these works pose like a general leading his troops into battle. His sense of authority led the orchestra to success, pulling off the performance astonishingly well, and bringing out the contrasts between the different composers’ styles.

Baiba Skride
Baiba Skride

The RTÉ NSO took the audience on a journey through the story of Don Juan. Strauss’ version of this story features numerous recurring themes which re-enact the play by Nicholas Lenau (1802-1850). The most striking part of this performance was the ‘Carnival Scene’, which is based around staccato phrases with glockenspiel and muted trumpets. A fortissimo chord rang out, and this was followed by a descending string pattern led brilliantly by conductor Julian Kuerti into a sudden silence. The highly effective stillness conducted by Kuerti returned at the end of the work, where the music drifts off into a series of slow, dark chords resolving themselves onto a pianissimo pizzicato ending.

Following on from Don Juan, after a hastily made orchestral change, the NSO began Mozart’s Violin Concerto no. 4 in D. This work, which was composed in 1775, was one of a series of violin concertos Mozart composed around that time. His rapid growth as a composer is evident in these concertos. The NSO added a layer of mischief to their performance with their clear articulation and excellent pizzicato. The highlight of this piece was the finale, which alternated between 2/4 and 6/8. The ease with which the NSO managed these shifts can be attributed to the strong communication between the orchestra, the soloists and the conductor. However, the classical style in which this work was presented could have benefited from more experimentation. Perhaps the introduction of more rubato would have heightened interest in the performance.

One couldn’t help but be amazed by the river-like flow of notes emanating from the violin of Baiba Skride. As she performed the solo sections of the Mozart works, I was mesmerised by the way her body moved with the music, and how she expressed so much emotion through her playing. The sense of flow suggested that Mozart’s intense virtuosic passages were no challenge to her. Since 2010 Skride has been using the ‘Ex Baron Feilitzsch’ Stradivarius of 1734. The rich timbre of this violin was beautifully matched with Skride’s sensitive and expressive style of performance.

Maxim Rysanov’s performance on the viola in the Sinfonia concertante in E flat had a special sense of warmth. The first movement is influenced by the ‘Mannheim style’ of dramatic orchestral crescendos, and the piece provides a multitude of performance challenges even for the most virtuosic of players. Mozart’s genius is evident in the exchange between the solo instruments and the orchestra. The chemistry between Rysnaov and Skride was striking: their movements seemed to interlock on stage, blending musical phrases beautifully between each other. In the Allegro maestoso movement, there instruments seemed to share a sonic property perhaps comparable to the ebony and ivory keys of a piano. With the departure of Rysnaov and Skride off stage, the NSO struggled to fill the void they left behind: as they closed with a performance of ‘Reisefieber’ and ‘Walzerszene’ from Strauss’ Intermezzo, the absence of the two dynamic soloists was felt strongly.

****1