A new year and the RTE National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland had tidings to announce: Nathalie Stutzmann is to be the principal guest conductor of the NSO for the next two years. This was particularly felicitous news to gladden the heart on a snowy January evening as I had been thoroughly impressed the first time I reviewed Stutzmann by her ability to glean the best from the orchestra and her overarching musical vision for each work in question.

Nathalie Stutzmann © Simon Fowler
Nathalie Stutzmann
© Simon Fowler

Nor were my previously high expectations disappointed with tonight’s romantic repertoire. Featuring Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture and two works by Brahms, his Concerto for Violin and Cello and his Symphony no. 2, Stutzmann guided the NSO with energy and sensitivity, eliciting a consistently warm orchestral sound and surprising us with moments of unexpected tenderness.

The sound was fresh and taut from the strings in the Coriolan Overture, while menace and tension lurked in the opening minor chords. Given the ultimate death of Coriolanus, there were many soulful moments while the restatement of the chords that open work in the coda throbbed with foreboding.

Soloists Itamar Zorman (violin) and Leonard Elschenbroich (cello) are both young men who quite clearly enjoy the limelight. The potential for onstage dominance might have been a bit of an issue had not both displayed excellent musical maturity resulting in a performance where the presence of the other created a dynamic that was as energising as it was fruitful. The thunderous orchestral opening meant that the cello solo passage sounded faint at first, but as our ears became accustomed to the single instrument I was much struck by the delicate ethereal quality of Elschenbroich’s tone. The higher registers of the violin allowed Zorman’s part to soar naturally and when the two instruments came together it was clear the duo were on the same wavelength. Stutzmann and the NSO responded with much sensitivity to the soloists dropping the volume a few notches and supporting this contrapuntal web of music. The second subject found Elschenbroich in whimsical form while as the movement progressed, the dynamic duo found ever deeper enjoyment in passing the melody seamlessly from one to another and communicating effortlessly with one another. If at times the intonation at the octave was not always perfect, it was momentary and we were swept away by the wonders of our musical journey.

The slow movement showcases some glorious Brahmsian melodies and it was intriguing to witness the different approaches each of the soloists took here. Zorman imbued his part with youthful intensity creating lines that were achingly beautiful while Elschenbroich allowed the lower part to float effortlessly along, luxuriating in a golden sound. The solemn beauty of the second movement dissolves amidst the playful finale where orchestra and soloists have the opportunity to poke fun. Rejoicing in the rhythmic complexities and demonstrating a lightness of touch, both soloists dispatched the double-stop gymnastics and other virtuosic passages with alacrity and agility.

Two things impressed me with Stutzmann’s conception of Brahms’ Symphony no. 2 in D major after the break: her super sharp rhythmic delineation and these unexpected, unforeseen moments of shy tenderness which I have never witnessed from the NSO or in the context of this piece in any other recording. The latter happened twice, towards the end of the first movement and in the Adagio second movement. In both cases it was if I was hearing the work in a new way as I was transported by the exquisite delicacy of the moment. The second movement was the highlight for me with so much to delight in: from the stillness of the cellos’ melody or the long unbroken lines of music which Stutzmann lovingly unfurled basking in the movement’s warm harmonies. None of this takes away from the carefree insouciance of the pastoral third movement or the pulsating excitement of the finale which Stutzmann took at a rollicking fast pace. All in all, it was a thoroughly convincing Brahms 2 and what has all the hallmarks of an extremely fruitful partnership between Stutzmann and the NSO for the next few years.