Returning to Belfast and repeating a successful formula from 2020, pianist Simon Trpčeski and conductor Gabriel Bebeşelea joined forces once again with the Ulster Orchestra. From tonight’s performance of the Grieg’s warhorse Piano Concerto, it showed how their understanding of each other has grown and developed. 

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Gabriel Bebeşelea
© Ulster Orchestra

Bookending the Grieg were two pieces by György Ligeti whose 1951 Concert Românesc began the evening. Despite being an early work, it wasn't premiered until 2000, having been banned. Tonal in nature, this curious work set a high bar for the rest of the evening. The folk melodies were given very different characters from Bebeşelea, with vivid colour changes and different rhythmic energies, this work came alive evocatively, almost dancing. Woodwind solos were beautifully executed, most noticeably from the principal clarinettist and flautist.

Grieg’s is a familiar concerto and core repertoire for many pianists. Having heard it countless times, it is difficult to believe anything different can be said; however, Trpčeski found something personal indeed. The opening movement was unhurried, Trpčeski modestly restrained, shaping each phrase with care, precision and direction, expressing something introverted and thoughtful, whilst  the virtuosity required was fully evident. The tone of his playing was everything we’ve come to expect – warm, rounded, yielding. 

The second movement bloomed slowly, Bebeşelea and Trpčeski sharing the same vision. The sound from the Steinway glistened as Trpčeski wove a spell making this movement rather magical. A slightly broader tempo than expected was chosen in the final movement. Bebeşelea’s orchestral balance was unconventional here with the trombones and timpani protruding, skewing things momentarily. Trpčeski ended the work unconventionally with a tremolo, imitating the timpani, rather that the notated octaves, concluding a very considered interpretation. 

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Simon Trpčeski and the Ulster Orchestra
© Ulster Orchestra

An encore followed, Trpčeski pairing-up with the UO’s leader Tamás Kocsis in a movement from Grieg’s Third Violin Sonata. Sharing the music from the piano’s music stand, this was very intimate and captivating.

During the interval, the audience were requested to set off 100 metronomes (lent by Bebeşelea) arranged along the platform edge for a ‘performance’ of Ligeti’s 1962 Poème symphonique. Whether this worked as a curious entertainment whilst the stage was reset, audience moved and chatted is questionable. It made light of the work, which can be effective if executed with care. By the end of the break, not all the metronomes had stopped and were halted by members of the orchestra and staff. Disappointingly this wasn’t treated with the same respect as the other works in the programme. 

The metronomes, however, provided the arching link with Beethoven’s succinct Eighth Symphony. Bebeşelea showed an affinity here, stressing its rhythmic and motivic nature. The four vivacious movements brimmed with energy and the UO sounded radiant in the hall’s acoustic. Some of Bebeşelea’s orchestral balances had a quirkiness about them, emphasising the winds and brass especially. Whilst less effective in the Grieg, they were more appropriate here, if not occasionally a little overdone, most notably in the third movement. An enjoyable performance all the same. 

With a little more thought to the execution of Poème symphonique, this could have elevated the evening, perhaps if given as a pre-concert performance it would have been more effective and fully executed the composer’s wishes. The energy of the Beethoven and Concert Românesc made an exciting concert; Trpčeski brought the breathing space in between, that much needed calm, balancing the spirited works with much musical satisfaction.