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Stefan Jackiw and the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra at the National Concert Hall | Review

Stefan Jackiw

By Anthony Brooks

Tonight’s concert begins with the bang and flourish of Malcolm Arnold’s Tam O’Shanter Overture. Composed in 1955, the work is an unusually deft handling of lightweight material lifted from Scottish folk music. It runs the gamut of virtuoso ‘English’ orchestration, sounding at times very like Holst, and gives the trumpets and trombones, in particular, plenty to sink their teeth into. Although a certain cheesiness is an inevitable part of the English-composer-doing-folk package, there is a confidence to the writing which makes it no surprise that Arnold belongs to the hallowed Nine Symphony club (his ninth was his last work, written in 1986, a full twenty years before his death). The National Symphony Orchestra handle the music well under Eugene Tzigane, and show all just what a top class orchestra they are.

Mendelssohn’s much-loved Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64 comes next, and introduces Stefan Jackiw, the American violinist in his twenties. His performance is spellbinding and plumbs extraordinary emotional depths. Mendelssohn’s perfectly judged scoring allows Jackiw to sit comfortably on top of the orchestra without seeming to push for volume. The subtlety and musicality of Jackiw’s performance is a joy to hear, and the fact that the word espressivo clearly doesn’t simply mean vibrato to him makes a world of difference to the piece. The orchestra performs well, apart from a single moment of ropey tuning in the woodwind – but this is very much a soloist’s piece. Jackiw reappears for an encore of the Largo from Bach’s Sonata No. 3 in C major for solo violin. His performance veers thrillingly close to the point of silence, and almost manages the impossible task of subduing an Irish audience into a similarly noiseless state.

After the break comes Beethoven’s monumental Symphony No. 7 in A. This work is justifiably famous for its slow bits: the unusually long slow introduction to the first movement and the beautiful Andante (as used in The King’s Speech). Here, the slow bits are treated pretty much like fast bits and the fast bits even faster. While fast speeds in the slow sections of this music can be effective, here it feels like much of the subtlety of the writing is lost. In the slow movement this borders on the tragic, and at times (for example the exposed fugato) it feels as if ensemble could be tighter. Although the second movement lacks space to breathe at key moments, the first movement is well handled. The third and fourth movements rip through the concert hall like an atomic bomb: absolutely thrilling. The playing is good, although there are perhaps too many violins on the stage and at times in the first movement they swallow the lower strings slightly. The double basses remedy this towards the end of the symphony with some laudably aggressive moments. Although the symphony is better known for its leisurely moments, the architecture of the fast movements ranks among Beethoven’s finest achievements. A gleaming example of his genius is the end of the third movement, which has an unusual second repeat of the main ‘scherzo’ section, where Beethoven sets up a moment of transition to convince the listener that there is yet another repeat coming, only to dash suddenly at breakneck speed to the final cadence, in a matter of five bars.

The presence of such a young, fresh talent of the violin is a joy to see with our National Symphony Orchestra, and the result is obvious – a very enjoyable evening, the undoubted highlight of which is the young violinist Stefan Jackiw.