A New Year, a packed house, wonderful soloists, an orchestra on top form: one would assume that God was in his heaven and all was right with the world. Yet, there are some serious decisions to be taken around the future of the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, most importantly whether it should be amalgamated with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra with concomitant redundancies on both sides. In spite of such gloomy prospects, the NSO was in rollicking form, playing with great verve and panache that belied the turbulent times.

Christian Ihle Hadland
© Nikolaj Lund

The programming for this evening’s concert was as attractive as it was intelligently planned. While both the Beethoven and Mendelssohn would be considered Romantic composers, tonight’s performance allowed us to trace the fascinating progression of classical elements within an increasingly Romantic context. Haydn, as the Father of the Symphony, set the classical tone of wit and brilliance in his “Surprise” Symphony. The Piano concerto no. 1 in C major dates from the early part of Beethoven’s career, the premiere of which is thought to have been organised by Haydn himself. There are element’s of Haydn’s humour and mischievousness to be heard in the outer two movements. As for Mendelssohn, he was known as the classical Romantic and while no one would doubt the Romantic fantasy of the “Italian” Symphonyit does possess certain classical elements of formal balance and graceful control.

Stutzmann’s conception of Haydn’s Surprise” was both witty and elegant. The strings were lively and suave when needed to be while the timpani and trumpets rejoiced in their more raucous outbursts. The mercurial mood was well captured with surprise changes of key and terrific fortissimo exchanges. The famous slow movement flowed along nicely, definitely on the brisker side of the tempo marking Andante. The violent ‘surprise’ fortissimo did seem to catch certain members on the audience on the hop on account of the hushed pianissimo which preceded it. The minor variations possessed good dramatic poise while in the recap the flute bobbed effortlessly over the main theme. Both conductor and orchestra revelled in the delicious off-beat accents which conclude this movement. Stutzmann imbued the finale with an engaging sense of mischievousness: manic semiquavers, explosive outbursts were the order of the day.

The highlight of the concert was Norwegian’s pianist Christian Ihle Hadland’s charming interpretation of Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto. It was not the most boisterous account I have heard, but it was always graceful, beautifully phrased and intensely musical. His articulation was crisp, his arpeggios glistened and humour abounded. The NSO matched his lightness of touch and exhibited great energy in the upward scales. In the cadenza, he brought out with scintillating clarity the contrapuntal lines of the various themes.

Stutzmann imbued the opening of the second movement with a magical sense of peace while the piano echoed this with beautiful, liquid repeated notes intertwining with the clarinet. The coda smouldered with the embers of A flat major and the subsequent transition of E flat, E natural, F was nothing short of exquisite. Hadland delivered a jovial third movement finale more charming than rambunctious. The A minor section with its jazzy rhythms leaps and rhythms was scintillating while he brought the concerto to a thoroughly satisfying conclusion.

Started during his Grand Tour of Italy at the age of 21, Mendelssohn completed his Symphony no. 4 in A major on his return to Berlin. It certainly brought some welcome Italian sunshine to us on a dark January night. Stutzmann brought life and good cheer to the opening movement with an enticing, fulsome sound from the strings and with some excellent dialogue between strings and woodwind and brass. The second movement has echoes of a pilgrims’ procession which Mendelssohn might have witnessed on his travels. Stutzmann kept it flowing which prevented it from getting too ponderous. It featured some wonderfully graded dynamics with atmospheric pizzicato from the strings.

The NSO shaped the third movement’s attractive melody with gracefulness and elegance. There were shy vernal mutterings from the strings while the horns were spot on with their distant hunting calls. In the finale, Stutzmann seized the music of this Roman dance by its lapels and gave us a terrifically gripping account. Exact and rhythmically sharp, she masterfully let the excitement build before bringing this symphony and the concert as a whole to a feisty conclusion.