Brave young pianist Nathalia Milstein is a work in progress

Despite the clear skill of last year’s Dublin International Piano Competition winner, something was missing at a recent concert

“Nathalia Milstein made plenty of sound, but her personal voice doesn’t yet seem capable of carrying the full import.” Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

“Nathalia Milstein made plenty of sound, but her personal voice doesn’t yet seem capable of carrying the full import.” Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

 

If there is one thing Nathalia Milstein, winner of last year’s Dublin International Piano Competition, is not lacking, it is guts. For the competition final last May, Milstein chose to play Prokofiev’s Second Piano Concerto, a work so relentlessly demanding that many players give it a wide berth.

For her post-competition Dublin debut recital on Wednesday, she returned to Prokofiev, pairing his turbulent Sixth Sonata with a selection from his youthful set of Ten Pieces, Op 12.

Milstein devoted her first half to Schumann, the Arabeske, an intimate, fluid rondo that the composer described as “variations, but not on a theme”, and the large- scale Fantasy in C, Op 17. The latter is one of the pinnacles of the romantic repertoire, as well as another work with dangers (the wide, contrary-motion leaps of the second movement), which keep all but brave souls from performing it.

Wednesday’s concert showed that Milstein has the kind of super-competence expected of 21st-century competition winners. Her fingers are fleet and sure, and she retains her composure even when the technical demands are off the scale.

Still, there was something missing, and the audience seemed to feel this. The reception was not as warm as might be expected. No one seemed to have experienced a rush of blood; there was no standing ovation.

For all the obvious skill and the clear eagerness of her delivery, Milstein didn’t seem to master the sheer scale of the statements that Schumann and Prokofiev are making in the opening movements of the fantasy and the sonata.

She made plenty of sound, but her personal voice does not yet seem capable of carrying the full import. Milstein’s musicianship and technique are admirable, but her personality is not yet really engaging. However, Milstein is still young, just 20, and still a student. Time is on her side.

Safe selections in safe hands

There was another pianist on stage at the NCH the following night, when Fiachra Garvey joined the RTÉ Concert Orchestra for one of John Wilson’s Essential Classics programmes.

Garvey is another veteran of the Dublin International Piano Competition: he scooped the award for best Irish player in 2009. Back then it was obvious that he had a claque-like personal following. Young people showed up just for his performances and were willing to spur him on like a crowd behind Andy Murray at Wimbledon.

The vocal supporters were in evidence on Thursday, when his warm-hearted account of the Grieg had something of the personality and presence I had sought from Milstein. The Grieg concerto, of course, is far safer territory than anything Milstein offered. It is an evergreen favourite that audiences never tire of, and Garvey’s account was unfussily rewarding.

Wilson opened the concert with a performance of Weber’s Freischütz Overture that was a little too self-consciously sculpted but otherwise excitingly alert. He closed with Brahms’s Second Symphony, which he approached in a completely different way to the Swedish Chamber Orchestra under Thomas Dausgaard last November.

The Swedes made a virtue of not being a full symphony orchestra, and presented a slimmed-down Brahms with lightness and spring. Wilson showed that a smaller band can make a good fist of replicating conventional Brahmsian fullness of tone, even when the numbers are small.

Rediscovered Rising Memoriam

The celebration of the centenary of the Easter Rising was marked on Friday when the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra opened their concert with the Irish premiere of Arnold Bax’s In Memoriam.

Bax was English by birth but he fell under the spell of Yeats and Ireland as a young man, and Irish influence imbues much of his music. He was a regular visitor to Ireland and lived in Dublin for a number of years. He died on a visit to Cork in 1953.

Bax published poetry under the name Dermot O’Byrne (his A Dublin Ballad and Other Poems was banned by the British censor), and he wrote a number of pieces under the sway of the events of 1916. Two of them share a title: In Memoriam for orchestra and In Memoriam (1916) for cor anglais, harp and string quartet.

The short score of the orchestral work is dated August 9th, 1916, with the dedication: “I gcuimhne ar bPadraig mac Piarais”. Pearse and Bax met on one occasion. In his autobiographical book, Farewell, My Youth, the composer recalls being told, “Pearse wants to die for Ireland, you know. It has been the ideal of his whole life,” and that Pearse’s reaction to him was to say, “I think your friend Arnold Bax may be one of us. I should like to see more of him.”

Bax recycled material from In Memoriam for his score for David Lean’s Oliver Twist (1948). But the orchestral piece remained in obscurity until the 1990s, when a full score was discovered in a publisher’s basement; the first performance and recording followed in 1998. In Duncan Ward’s performance with the NSO, the lushly orchestrated work came across as earnest and heartfelt.

The Bax was followed by Lutoslawski’s 1970 Cello Concerto, performed by the honey-toned Armenian cellist Narek Hakhnazaryan, winner of the 2011 Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. The Lutoslawski is built on theatrical conflicts, with snarling interruptions from the orchestra intruding on the often meditative and lyrical solo cello. In this performance, the point of the music was communicated through the starkest of contrasts.

The performance of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony that followed was a model of classical composure, small in scale and beautifully balanced, taut in energy and potent in expression, and thrilling from beginning to end.

  • mdervan@irishtimes.com
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