“Bright and witty Poulenc contrasts with menacing Prokofiev in Dublin”

Solo pianists are not given to readily sharing the limelight. After all, one doesn’t practise ten hours a day in order to meekly allow another to take half the credit. And yet there are some wonderfully exciting concertos for two pianos that would make a welcome relief from the tired hackneyed warhorse concertos from the piano competitions. One such a one was tonight’s utterly charming and witty concerto by Poulenc which sparkled under the fruitful Irish-American partnership of Fiachra Garvey and Alexander Bernstein.

The two great World Wars formed the historical backdrop to all the pieces on the programme. Opting for a chronological order, Debussy’s impressionistic Jeux was written in 1913 while the utterly delightful Poulenc Concerto for two pianos in D minor was composed in between the two wars in 1932. Prokofiev’s mighty Fifth Symphony, which occupied the second half of the concert, was written during the summer of 1944.

From the opening ghostly shimmering on the violins, young British conductor Duncan Ward carefully garnished each wave of sound. And though at first the whispering ppp lacked the desired seductive tone, the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra were more successful later on in harnessing hazy, muted indulgent sounds to good effect. As Ward and the orchestra grew in confidence at conveying the elusive, impish Gallic atmosphere, waves of sounds broke and dissipated among the honeyed dissonances. Towards the end of the work, the thwarted crescendos had real oomph adding to the frenzied final moments.

Sparks flew as Bernstein and Garvey attacked Poulenc’s concerto with undisguised relish and lashings of good humour. There are so many intertextual references to other composers within this work – Mozart, Mendelssohn, Ravel, Rachmaninov – that it makes for an enjoyable if slightly distracting spot-the-influence game. The NSO and Ward joined in the ebullience, with jazz rhythms and cheeky woodwind interjections before the Gamelan-inspired music at the end of the Allegro ma non troppo made both pianists and orchestra find their inner Zen.

The Larghetto opens as an homage to Mozart’s K466 but Poulenc quickly adds a swirl of romanticism which Garvey and Bernstien played with panache. The finale bubbled up with good cheer, the American impressing with his lively repeated notes while the Irishman flaunting his Chopinesque filigree.

A sense of foreboding and menace is never far from the surface in Prokofiev’s Fifth even if the composer intended it to be a “a hymn to free and happy Man, to his mighty powers, his pure and noble spirit”. In the opening Andante, the hope-filled woodwind and subsequent string sections are underpinned by the quiet rumblings on the brass and timpani – a presage of things to come. Ward elicited a swirling passion from the strings before the brass blazed forth. The thunderous percussion at the end were as frightening as a parade of Soviet tanks.

Ward caught the nervous energy of the Allegro, harnessing the NSO to great effect. Exciting yet controlled, the music sped forward, the strings revelling in their offbeat accents. Given that the symphony was written a handful of months after the bloody Siege of Leningrad, the third movement Adagio is a threnody to the horrors of merciless war. Here Ward captured this doleful mood with searing violins and sinister brass crashing the fragile soundscape in the end. The delicate shimmering of the violins was akin to the dead slaughtered in the siege.

The dark clouds of the third movement were swept aside by the lightness and resourcefulness of the fourth movement Allegro giocoso. Here the delicate spiccato of the violins contrasted with the lyrical reprieve of the opening movement on the cellos. There was terrific rhythmic excitement and verve to the NSO’s delivery before the brass and the percussion unleashed their forces with cacophonous effect.