Collins, RTÉ NSO/Buribayev


NCH, Dublin

Jennifer Walshe– Hotel Chelsea. Shostakovich– Piano Concerto No 2. Tchaikovsky– Symphony No 6 (Pathétique)

This concert by the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra offered an evening of transformations. Jennifer Walshe’s Hotel Chelsea, an RTÉ commission for the NSO, constituted a rethinking of what an orchestra might be called upon to do. And principal conductor designate Alan Buribayev’s performance of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony presented a rethinking of where the boundaries of the possible for the NSO in particular might be drawn.

Walshe’s oblique programme note for Hotel Chelseaoffers a number of truncated, scene-painting paragraphs, passages of purple prose from what might have been scenarios for a dystopian, futuristic, Hollywood blockbuster. The music itself belches and erupts in the blackest of depths, a part for organ supplying worrying tremors, the heavy brass braying out curse after curse.

To this melée Walshe adds pre-recorded sounds, chanting by the orchestral players (pretty indecipherable from where I was sitting), beatifically sweet high tunes on the organ, radios, wildly disruptive drumkit solos, and the weird, keening decay of organ chords sustained through the shutting off of air pressure from the bellows.

The piece was a feast for the eye as well as the ear – it included a Mexican wave of instruments, guided by the gestures of the conductor. It was hard to know what to make of it all, and equally hard not to be gripped by the unfolding of these strangest of fantasies.

As a statement of intent by an incoming principal conductor, Buribayev’s approach to Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique was full of promise. The conducting was painstaking on matters of dynamics and balance. The soft playing created a hush factor that the orchestra rarely seems to aspire to, the climaxes lifted the roof, and a myriad of internal detail was revealed through the exercise of restraint by the weightier instruments, the encouragement of the lighter ones, and attention to what was at the bottom of the musical argument as well as what was on the top. It was as close to a virtuoso performance of Tchaikovsky’s warhorse as I’ve heard from this orchestra.

The soloist in the evening’s concerto, Shostakovich’s Second Piano Concerto, was Finghin Collins. The work, written in 1957 for the composer’s 19-year-old son Maxim, is pure pastiche, and a week after Shostakovich completed it, he told fellow composer Edison Denisov that it was a work with no redeeming artistic merits. Collins and Buribayev delivered its breezy outer movements and the super-grade kitsch of its sentimental central Andante with unfailing commitment.