The Ulster Orchestra and its principal conductor Rafael Payare were on good form for the final concert of their 50th anniversary season at Belfast’s Ulster Hall. After serious financial difficulties had put the orchestra under the threat of disbandment in recent years, the successful completion of this year’s concert season was cause for celebration of struggles overcome. The orchestra is now on a stronger administrative footing and the dynamic leadership of young Venezualean conductor Payare has arguably also helped in raising the orchestra’s profile, notably with their Proms appearance last year. The programme was suitably matched to the celebratory occasion, promising to be one of the year’s highlights. The evening’s centrepiece, Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto, performed by English pianist Stephen Hough, was framed by Shostakovitch’s breathless Festive Overture and Prokofiev’s rousing, stunningly orchestrated Symphony no.5 in B flat major.

Rafael Payare © Askonas Holt
Rafael Payare
© Askonas Holt

Set in motion by luminous brass fanfares, the Festive Overture quickly expands into a rapturous and unstoppable tour de force. Throughout the score, packed with whirring strings and full-throated brass sections, the orchestra maintained rhythmic precision with some commendably sharp attack in the strings and fine solo performances in the woodwinds. Building towards the audacious romp of the latter part of the Overture, the orchestra collectively played with verve and volume, spurred on by the ever-zestful Payare.

For Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 5 in E flat major, nicknamed Emperor, the orchestra teamed up with highly-acclaimed pianist Stephen Hough, who more than fulfilled high expectations and navigated his way through one of the most beloved, and most demanding pieces of the concerto repertoire with seeming ease. From his first entry in the opening movement (Allegro), Hough played with great elegance and understated virtuosity, managing the flurries of the score with serenity and revealing masterful technique throughout the piece. The orchestra, while playing well for most of the first and last movement (Rondo allegro), had difficulties in matching Hough’s sense for subtle nuance and emotional depths. Even when Payare visibly cautioned his players, they at times insensitively overpowered the piano in the slow second movement (Adagio). Occasional lapses in attention in the string sections also resulted in moments of untidiness, sadly compromising the overall convincing performance. Hough’s brilliance in tone came to the fore in the Rondo, where he captured the contrast between light-footed, lilting melodies and the glorious theme. His emotive playing in the encore, Schumann’s Träumerei from Kinderszenen, was nothing short of mesmerising.

After the interval, Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony was on the menu. Written as the Soviet Union’s position in the Second World War strengthened, this mammoth piece brings together a brooding darkness as a constant, shadowy presence overarching the entire piece and sentiments of optimism and faith in the goodness in mankind, as the composer himself described it. Payare managed to guide the fully-stocked orchestra securely and confidently through the dense textures of orchestral writing. Now more focused, the string and wind sections played the lyrical melodies of the first movement (Andante) with intensity and good feeling for phrasing, the neurotic repetitiveness of rhythm in the following Scherzo was delivered with the relentlessness needed. Now running on full throttle, the orchestra impressed with spookily shrill trumpet fanfares towards the end of the second movement and rather heavy, resonant percussion work. The work culminates in the last bars of the final movement (Allegro giocoso), in which the chamber ensemble plays its grotesque little dance with devilish fervour. While the instrumentalists weren’t perfectly together for this short frenzy, their spirited performance made up for it and lead the orchestra to the final flourish of the symphony.