If the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra's 2016-17 season got off to an unusually sombre start last week, then that was because the opening work, Mahler's Kindertotenlieder (songs on the death of children) had been chosen as a vehicle for the chocolate-dark tones of Irish mezzo-soprano Patricia Bardon, who delivered her part with an imposing blend of mist and gravity.
The instrumentation of these songs is characteristically a miracle of orchestral transparency, and optimal balances between soloist and accompaniment were further assured by the light touch of guest conductor Jonas Alber. A similar delicacy pervaded the more subdued moments of Bruckner's Symphony No 5, where attentive terracing of the very softest dynamics was one detail among many that helped articulate the vast architecture of this 80-minute score.
Except in the scherzo, when the required fluctuations of tempo had a slightly unsettled feel, Alber’s pacing hit the mark, the Adagio in particular capturing the elusive ideal of unhurried impulsion. And while the portentous fanfares of the finale will always strike some ears as overblown in the metaphorical sense, on this occasion there was never any danger that they would be literally so.
There was much to enjoy in a solo evening recital at the National Concert Hall by Malaysian-born pianist Bobby Chen. With the partial exception of Busoni's mighty piano transcription of Bach's solo violin chaconne, all items dated from the 19th century, and Chen seemed to play each one of them better than the last.
The interpretations were minutely memorised, and their only aspects that didn't entirely convince lay specifically in the need for slightly less weight in the filigree work of Schubert's Four Impromptus D 899 and in some surprising (albeit deliberate) hold-ups in Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata Op 27 No 2 . That said, no listener could have been in any doubt as to the relationship between melody and accompaniment, or as to the music's underlying metre.
Having first asserted itself in the central section of the fourth Impromptu, Chen's instinct for disciplined flexibility informed a thunderous and truly epic account of the chaconne, kept Field's quirky Variations on a Russian Folk Song on a compelling trajectory, and rendered the other-worldly impressions of Liszt's Deux Légendes as things utterly persuasive.
Stunnling solo encore
The programme given by the English Chamber Orchestra at the National Concert Hall can have disappointed in only one respect: that Vaughan Williams's The Lark Ascending and Beethoven's Romance No 2 Op 50 didn't showcase the talents of solo violinist Jennifer Pike to the extent a major concerto would have done. Still, there were amends, partly in the form of a stunning solo encore (the Preludio from Bach's Partita No 3 BWV 1006), and partly in the loving care lavished on Vaughan Williams.
That the composer’s quintessentially English little rhapsody came off with such notable integrity was due in no small measure to things not to be taken for granted from soloists but which were clearly of the essence for Pike, who had absorbed the work much too thoroughly to be in need of a music stand, and who in the measured sections trusted herself completely to the direction of veteran guest conductor José Serebrier.
Born in Uruguay in 1938 to emigré European parents, Serebrier began his musical career – as a composer – with a remarkable mixture of good and ill fortune which he delighted in recollecting in a lively pre-concert interview. While he was still a violin student at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, his first symphony was premièred by the Houston Symphony Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski, no less, in a performance that would surely have taken the media by storm had it not coincided with the earth-shattering first orbit of Sputnik 1.
Notwithstanding his extraordinary flair for crafting orchestral scores of his own, Serebrier has been unable to resist the call of the conductor's rostrum, at which he received his training under Stokowski, George Szell and Pierre Monteux – a veritable roll-call of 20th-century greats he recalls as if from only months and years ago, as opposed to a whole generation and more.
During the concert, it was impossible not to think of all that rare experience, which seemed to explain why The Lark Ascending had the fresh feeling of something newly written, and why for all their vim and vigour the two symphonies – Haydn's No 92 and Beethoven's No 8 – seemed almost untouched by the period performance ethos that's been gathering pace over the last 50 years.
Though a relaxed, not to say halting approach to the minuets of both symphonies may have suggested too much conservatism, that impression was swept aside in a thoroughly vivacious reading of Beethoven's finale, which prompted genuine desire for the four encores Serebrier had, in his pre-concert talk, already announced he intended to play: the Air from Bach's Suite in D BWV 1068, Mozart's Marriage of Figaro Overture, Piazzolla's Oblivion and Anderson's Jazz Pizzicato.
It was a mixed bag of musical delights, and it showed how this inimitable maestro keeps alive an idea that a lot of his younger colleagues have forgotten: that conducting can be entertainment.