The combination of the star power of violinist Ray Chen, the sumptuous music of Tchaikovsky and the ever wonderful principal guest conductor of the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, Nathalie Stutzmann, meant that we were in for what promised to be a magnificent concert. And nor did they disappoint; indeed the poignancy and excitement of Chen’s rendition of Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto in D major will stand out in my mind for many years to come.

Ray Chen © John Mac
Ray Chen
© John Mac

There is always the risk in constructing a programme around one composer that he might “cloy the appetites he feeds” to adapt a maxim from Shakespeare. What we lost out in breadth in last night’s concert though, we gained by plumbing the depths both emotionally and musically of this complex and sensitive composer. From the cheeriness of the Polonaise from Eugene Onegin to the mischievous and coquettish moments in the Violin Concerto and everything in between, we got a fuller account of this Russian composer than just the writer of glorious, heart-throbbingly beautiful melodies.

The NSO proved to be on fine form tonight with the woodwind catching the mournful character that opens the Prelude to Pique Dame and this was answered by soulful strings. One of the things that most impressed me about tonight’s performance was Stutzmann’s dignified restraint of Tchaikovsky’s dynamic excess. Not every fortissimo needed to be hammered out as if it were the climax. Instead Stutzmann shaped each one lovingly, on the principal that less is indeed more. Without pausing for breath, she dived straight into the famous Polonaise from Eugene Onegin. The celebrated tune had lots of oomph and oodles of style, vividly characterised but not exaggerated.

It’s hard to imagine Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto as not being anything other than a runaway success and yet at its premiere, critic Eduard Hanslick savaged it, describing it as “music that stinks to the ear”. In Chen’s hands, this was music which ravished our ears. Opening with a beautiful, soulful vibrato, he caressed the melody. This was a slightly slow, daringly exploratory account of the first movement, but all the better for it as it allowed us to savour each note. There was an instinctive chemistry between Chen and Stutzmann and several tricky moments of co-ordination around sudden alterations in tempo were expertly navigated. The NSO did a terrific job of supporting the soloist without in anyway drowning out his voice.

As one might expect Chen dispatched the virtuosic passages brilliantly; double stops, tremolos and in the cadenza the glissando sixths, and scales so fast they smoked. But thrilling as that was, it was his delicate spinning of the threads of melody that were so touchingly beautiful.

His pizzicato was so violent at the beginning of the third movement that I thought he would force his violin out of tune. He bounded forth with all the liveliness and unerring accuracy of one of the more sure-footed Chamonix goats. And as the music bubbled over with energy and good humour, Chen brought the concerto to a stirring conclusion in a gripping-the-edge-of-your-seat type of way.  

Intense and exhilarating, Stutzmann had the recurring fate-motif firmly in mind in her approach to the Symphony no. 5 in E minor as if it cast a shadow over the other glorious melodies of the first movement. Her majestic control of the dynamics meant that the outbursts, when they did occur, gained in effectiveness. The brass was most impressive here providing fiery eruptions. There was a richness to the strings, particularly the cellos that throbbed with sensual passion in the second movement as the music soared gloriously between D major and B minor.

After the drama of the first two movements, we could relax with the third movement waltz with some elegant violins and not a little coquettish charm. In the finale, Stutzmann kept a tight rein on the tension, letting the excitement build inexorably before allowing it to blaze forth in all its glory. It was a truly memorable concert and one which the audience voraciously enjoyed. 

*****