Last night’s concert was really about one person: Leonard Slatkin. Sure, there was a bright, young soloist, Alina Ibragimova, an interesting programme of late romantic works from Strauss and Elgar but the crowds had turned up to hear and see the maestro in action and nor were they disappointed. This was a fine concert of exciting musicianship and glorious music.

Leonard Slatkin © Cybelle Codish
Leonard Slatkin
© Cybelle Codish

In a drily humorous introduction, Slatkin revealed his connection with the first work on the programme, Circuits, composed by his wife Cindy McTee. It possessed a buzz of electric energy underscored by frenetic percussion ostinatos. Slatkin kept a tight rein on the work’s rhythmic complexities, with sharp crescendos and subito pianos. And in spite of the predominant percussive element, Slatkin captured the sense of fun that lurked never too far from the music’s surface.

Richard Strauss’ Violin Concerto in D minor is a cracking work with delectable hints and echoes of Brahms, Mendelssohn, Bruch and Tchaikovsky – a heady mix indeed. My only surprise is that it is not performed more frequently. There again, the terrifying technical demands it makes on the violinist means that only the bravest and most competent dare to try. Ibragimova proved herself to be courageous and daring, attacking its virtuosic pyrotechnics with a visceral bravura. Composed when Strauss was 17, it is unapologetically romantic, emotion pullulating from each phrase.

There was a warm, romantic hue to the orchestral palette while the flute at the start possessed a plaintive, mournful quality. The rising scale in double stops for the soloist was tackled with bristling energy and no little chutzpah. But Ibragimova proved that she wasn’t just a technical wizard and in the second subject in F major she really made her violin sing. There was a delicate, gossamer sheen to the ephemeral, soaring melody that was utterly delightful. The second movement Lento is achingly beautiful and Ibragimova launched herself into the earnest outpouring with heartfelt vibrato. The pianissimo of the return of the main theme, matched by the RTÉ NSO, was ravishingly done.

Ibragimova comes across as a player of gravity, with an aura of seriousness. While the technical challenges of the third movement Rondo–Presto were dispatched effortlessly the overall character lacked a certain playful flightiness, something that was reflected in Ibragimova’s use the score for the last movement alone. Her spiccato, while gazelle-like in its execution, needed more mischief. Nonetheless, a fine performance of a rarely heard concerto.

It was in the second half, back on the familiar territory of Elgar’s Enigma Variations, that we could really take stock of the maestro in action. Slatkin’s conducting style tends towards the minimalist approach; minute, precise gestures and, even in the more expansive moments like Nimrod, the style was still contained yet trembling with intensity. The RTÉ NSO proved to be on high alert to the maestro’s slightest indications, so much so that I had the distinct impression of witnessing the economics of conducting: minimum input with maximum results.

Slatkin imbued the opening theme with chiaroscuro colour: warm, sunny strings contrasted wonderfully with darker counter-melodies. One of the most impressive things about Slatkin was his ability to finely blend and grade instruments, so that previously unnoticed counterpoints on the horn or viola, as the case may be, were delicately etched against the main melody adding surprising depth and complexity to the kaleidoscope of sound. There were some delightful tongue-in-cheek moments in Variations 2 and 6, the viola, in the latter, being teasingly playful in its string crossings. From the vernal mutterings of Variation 10 to the dark and broodingly romantic declarations of Variation 12, Slatkin and the orchestra really brought the music’s portrayals to life. Keeping a sharp hand on the rhythm, Slatkin brought a blaze of zest and colour to the finale with its stirring account of love and friendship.

Ever the canny operator, Slatkin prepared a velvet account of Percy Grainger’s version of Londonderry Air as an encore, something that went down the audience as happily as vintage port after a fine meal.

****1