New Season, new faces: tonight’s concert was the French conductor and contralto Nathalie Stutzmann’s debut as the principal guest conductor of the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra. In the previous two occasions she has visited, I have been much struck by her exciting musicianship and her evident bond she formed with the orchestra. All of this should make for a fruitful partnership over the next few years.

Nathalie Stutzmann
© Simon Fowler

On the surface, the programme was a real crowd-pleaser; a mixture of sumptuous Romanticism, and energetic classical and neo-classical works, but there was logic in the choice of works. The chirpy first symphonies of Beethoven and Prokofiev are strongly influenced by the symphonies of Mozart and Haydn and therefore made for a fascinating pairing. This second half cheeriness was a welcome relief to the searing intensity of Brahms’ Violin Concerto of the first half.

It takes an exceptionally courageous, musically mature violinist to tackle Brahms’ only violin concerto. The formidable demands it makes on the soloist, technically, emotionally and musically, are enough to make even the great violinists think twice before taking it on. To adapt a Lord of the Rings phrase: one does not simply saunter through Brahms’ Violin Concerto.

And courageous and utterly capable 28-year-old German violinist Veronika Eberle proved to be. She approached the work with a ferocious intensity that was utterly riveting. In this regard, I was instantly reminded of the great Genette Neveu’s recording of the piece. From the violin’s first salvo, Eberle’s vibrato was electrifyingly intense drawing us instantly into the dark, troubled soul of this music. The double stops were attacked with a visceral ferocity while the stratospherically high moments were meticulously precise in their intonation.

Showing her tender side, Eberle unfurled the delicate tendrils of the second subject melody. As this heavenly melody waxed and waned, Eberle’s tone was a like warm glow of sunshine breaking through the clouds. The NSO were wonderfully responsive, like a zippy sport’s car, going from a fulsome ff to a whispering pp at the stroke of Stutzmann’s baton. There were so many other moments to enjoy, the meltingly tender transition from A major to F major and the extraordinary technical virtuosity of the cadenza to highlight but two of them.

The Adagio had poise, its high notes hovering effortlessly in the ether while the quirky rhythmic drive of the finale with its offbeat accents and gypsy flair lead to a thoroughly riveting conclusion.

Stutzmann brought this distinctive rhythmic drive to the fore in the opening movement of Beethoven’s Symphony no. 1 making it ripple with energy. Despite its obvious classical trappings, Stutzmann drew a more muscular, meatier type of Mozartian sound from the orchestra, that suited the crisp chords and the more jocose moments. It was all delicacy and lilting phrases in the Andante as the orchestra really listened out to one another.

The last two movements are redolent of humour and jokes. Here Stutzmann showed her comic timing with emphasis on laser sharp rhythms and off-beat accents, sharp darts of colour and antiphonal exchanges. At one stage, her evident enjoyment of the music had her bobbing up and down playfully on the podium.

In rather similar vein, Prokofiev’s brief if fun Symphony no.1 “Classical” concluded the concert. The energy of the first movement was as palpable as if this was first work of the evening. I was most impressed by Stutzmann’s consistent attention to phrasing, even in the most innocuous of moments, she had us listening to every note. In the Gavotte, the NSO captured the whimsical character, the delicate flutes and the string pizzicato disappearing into ppp. The finale bustled with joviality and lively dialogue leading to a very satisfying conclusion.