The young French cellist Victor Julien-Laferrière said in a pre-concert talk at the National Concert Hall, before playing the Dvořák Cello Concerto with the National Symphony Orchestra under the direction of fellow countrywoman Nathalie Stutzmann, that although he comes from a musical family, he cannot sing.

Nathalie Stutzmann © Brice Toul
Nathalie Stutzmann
© Brice Toul

But sing his cello did on the night as he and Stutzmann, who is also a widely praised contralto, milked the Dvořák for every bit of its abundant melody, soul and passion. Who knows exactly what was going through Dvořák's head when, in the mid-1890s, after much beseeching by his Czech cellist friend Hanus Wihan, he sat down to write a concerto for an instrument whose lower register he thought sounded “too much like muttering”. What seemed to have tipped the balance, as Dvořák wound up his three-year stint in the United States, was his hearing a New York performance of a cello concerto composed by Victor Herbert, better known as a composer of 43 operettas. Dvořák stuffed his own with more earworms than Herbert could have ever dreamt of, with a result that led the Dvořák-sceptic Brahms to opine that had he known a cello concerto could be so good, he'd have written one himself.

The piece is one of the great crowd pleasers, which accounted for the large attendance at the Friday concert, and although Julien-Laferrière was in Dublin for the first time, he said he had loved visiting the city and the feeling was mutual. The 28-year-old Frenchman, both of whose parents are clarinetists and two of whose siblings are professional musicians, had the audience bewitched from his entrance, after a beautiful rendition of the horn solo that Dvořák places at the opening as a taste of what's to come.

Julien-Laferrière gets a lovely, burnished tone from his cello, which he says was made in about 1700 by an anonymous Italian instrument maker. The instrument does not have as large or dark a sound as some Italian cellos of the period and sometimes the orchestra overpowered him, but it was a treat to hear a beautiful instrument played with musicality and grace. Julien-Laferrière has lightning speed when needed, such as in the rapid run to the upper limits of the fingerboard at the end of the first movement. But he also took his time with some of the lovely themes in the second movement, and Stutzmann graciously gave him plenty of space. There was a clear rapport between soloist and conductor, with each of them looking frequently to the other for cues. But an even lovelier vignette was Julien-Laferrière locked in eye contact with leader Joanne Quigley McParland for the cello-violin duet that is the high point of the last movement. It was a total triumph and was followed by way of encore with the sarabande from Bach's Cello Suite No. 2 – just to let you know he's great without an orchestra too.

Stutzmann rounded out the evening with three of Dvořák's Slavonic Dances, Nos. 1, 2 and 8, and with a triple header of Ravel: his Menuet antique, Une barque sur l'océan and La Valse. Her take on the Slavonic Dances was brash and brassy, when called for, but also wistful and dreamy in Dance No. 2, which is based on the Ukrainian Dumka. Dance No. 8 is the showstopper and Stutzmann made sure the full palette of the orchestra was on display. It should be, and was, a sonic spectacular, ending this abridged rendition of pieces that make a wonderful Czech counterpoint to Brahms' Hungarian Dances or Liszt's rhapsodies.

And then we were away from central Europe to the French soundscape of Ravel. Of the three pieces, Une barque sur l'océan stood out for some wonderful playing in the brass section -- cutting through the string murk that suggests the boat rolling on the swells. But even more fun was Ravel's deconstruction of the Viennese waltz. The star turn for the woodwinds was announced early on with a wonderful, fluttering glissando by lead flautist Catriona Ryan. Stutzmann played up the role of the woodwinds as something of a yowling chorus of cats, scratching away at any attempt by the other sections to play a straight waltz. It eventually comes crashing to an abrupt halt, like Ravel's Bolero, which explains why the great ballet impresario Diaghilev, who commissioned the piece, rejected it as undanceable.

But unlistenable, hardly, and the audience was delighted.The playing throughout the concert was impeccable, which is one of the reasons whenever Stutzmann, the orchestra's principal guest conductor, is running the show, the audiences flock. With the 2018-19 season nearing its conclusion, NSO regulars can look back and say they've had a splendid spell of music-making in Dublin's fair city.

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