Mozart’s lively Symphony no. 29 in A major opened the Ulster Orchestra’s Good Friday concert, a seemingly odd work considering the rest of the programme. This teenage work was given a brisk performance through all four movements. Whilst there was much grace and elegance, some articulation felt overly fussy — especially in the opening Allegro moderato. Phrasing and dynamics were very predictable in the Andante slow movement. The dance of the Minuet was lost through being overly quick, and although the Trio was reassuringly slower the 6/8 of the finale felt driven a little too hard. The string playing throughout was absolutely unified, but the woodwinds were sadly not handled with complete accuracy.

Aoife Miskelly © Marshall Light Studio
Aoife Miskelly
© Marshall Light Studio

Brahms’ Schicksalslied or Song of Destiny was the central work on the programme, a rarity and unjustifiably so. Premiered in 1871, this work is of around 15 minutes in length, making it difficult to programme. A seriousness descended immediately, changing the mood completely as the luscious sound of Brahms’ rich orchestration, played with real empathy, filled Ulster Hall. Rafael Payare phrased the orchestral contributions with a sense of complete understanding, piquant harmonies were accented sympathetically. The altos made the initial choral entry, which was completely secure. As the other voices entered the quality, blend and intonation of the Belfast Philharmonic Choir was excellent. There was a sense of purpose and direction in this highly engaging performance. The only disappointment was a lack of consonants from the choir; however reaching the final bars, it didn’t prevent the hairs on the back of one’s neck standing to attention in a moment of reverence and transcendence.

Mozart’s Requiem needs no introduction. Placing the tenor and soprano to his Payare’s left and alto and bass to his right seemed an odd arrangement for the soloists but his reasoning would become apparent later. The opening Introitus was aptly paced, with a certain solemnity aided by sensitive phrasing, particularly from the woodwind. When the choir entered, the most striking change from the Brahms was their diction — the clarity of every vowel appreciated and each consonant placed with unity. Aoife Miskelly’s first entry soared and was sung with sheer beauty. Payare balanced his choral and orchestral forces perfectly here, the sensitive use of the organ adding drama to this already foreboding music in a dramatic way. The men of the BPC shone in the Dies irae, but it was the tenors who really came into their own here especially with strong and secure entries. Bass Edwin Crossley-Mercer made a strong impression, his voice contrasting and complementing tenor Robin Tristshcler’s lighter sound. When the four soloists combined the sound was delightful, with bass and tenor particularly clear.

The Rex tremendae was impressive for its orchestral balance, the quality of the choral sound and the control of the dynamics; the precision of the choral consonants was superb. The soprano/tenor and alto/bass duets of the Recordare explained the placement of soloists. Between each pair of singers there seemed a bond, a naturalness as ideas were passed between them, listening carefully to each other. The Lacrimosa had vivid dynamics and imaginatively shaped ideas allowing the music to jump off the pages.

Rachel Kelly truly shone in the Benedictus. In the Agnus Dei the choir’s intonation was incredibly strong and endurance unwavering. Heading through the Communio, Payare maintained momentum, driving both the choir and orchestra hard.

Payare balanced the choir and orchestra faultlessly in both choral pieces. The orchestra were more than mere accompanists, but it was the Belfast Philharmonic Choir's night. Chorus master Stephen Doughty should be proud. The Mozart wasn’t a period performance – clarinets instead of basset horns, strings played with sensitive vibrato, the mammoth Mulholland organ used as if it were a chamber organ supporting a choir of 130 — but this didn’t matter, the execution was such the music was allowed to sing.