In a stroke of programmatic creativity, the Ulster Orchestra and guest conductor Anu Tali brought an evening of deeply evocative music from northern climes, entirely marked by works with muted colours, darker emotions and ethereal atmospheres. 

Anu Tali
© Kabir Cardenas

Beginning with Einojuhani Rautavaara’s Cantus Arcticus, the Ulster Hall filled with the sounds of birdsong. In each of the three movements, Rautavaara had recorded avian sounds to be played alongside the orchestra, effectively making them soloists. Opening with the movement entitled The Bog, two flutes duetted imitating birdsong, this highly polished movement evolved slowly. The woodwind played exceptionally well and the strings were sonorous. Melancholy, the central movement uses the sounds of arctic terns. Tali was completely into the music as she painted this icy musical landscape; the pristine intonation and highly controlled playing of the strings enhanced the atmosphere of a biting chill. In Swans Migrating, the concluding movement, she knew how to bring the transparency out in the textures, each layer of sound was distinctive, with a sense of magic and majesty. The slightly more reverberant Ulster Hall (because of the reduced audience) enhanced the overall experience of this atmospheric work. 

William Walton’s Viola Concerto was given a very secure performance from soloist Lise Berthaud. Together with Tali they gave the work a reserved feel, keeping the reins held tight, a straightforward interpretation which allowed the music to speak for itself. From Berthaud’s initial entry her tone was rich, projecting well in to the hall. The balance of the orchestra and soloist were judicious, allowing the viola to really come to the fore. Although marked Andante commodo, there was a sense of momentum in the opening movement. The central Scherzo had a strong sense of rhythmic precision with a prevailing air of caution; excitement came, growing gradually, peaking towards the end. The same level of control characterised the satisfying Allegro moderato finale with its many contrasting episodes. This concerto, characterised by its introspection, can be a difficult work to be convincing in, but together Bertraud and Tali gave a highly persuasive account. 

Pairing works by Walton and Sibelius is common practice, unusually, on this occasion, not with a symphony but a complete performance of Sibelius’ Lemminkäinen Suite. Predating his symphonies, all the hallmarks of Sibelius’ later style can be heard in this series of ‘four legends’. Tali conducted confidently, conveying the programmatic narrative that links the pieces with an arching vision. Lemminkäinen and the Maidens of the Island was paced and measured. The bold brass playing evoked the ‘Don Juan’ persona of the hero, whilst the shaping of phrases evoked a sense of seduction. Hearing The Swan of Tuonela in context brought a different understanding. The song of the swan on the cor anglais, guest player Tom Davey, was gently expressive and plaintive, whilst the final bars grew with an intense sense of mystery. Lemminkäinen in Tuonela was highly evocative of the hero’s demise. Concluding with Lemminkäinen’s Return, there was a sense of excitement bringing the evening to a fitting, uplifting and exciting finale.