Belfast’s Ulster Hall has quite an unforgiving acoustic, everything in the auditorium can be heard from the drop of a feather to the squeak of mouse. It’s a space that needs careful handing, a skill Daniele Rustioni has finely honed. What characterised this entire Ulster Orchestra concert was a special gift at making the softest notes fill the hall, but at the same time making the loudest notes exciting without overwhelming. His conducting cast bewitchment over the audience, all with the flick of the baton.

Alena Baeva
© Jean-Baptiste Millot

Beginning the evening with Lyadov’s The Enchanted Lake, the hall was filled with magic and mystery. Rustioni caressed the most gentle, but sonorously rich sounds from the orchestra, which responded, echoing their conductor's gestures with much expression. The gentle rubato in this slowly evolving piece was highly effective, adding to the ambience. Holding the spell just a little longer after the piece, a breathless audience revelled in the moment, as it became clear this was going to be a special concert. 

Violinist Alena Baeva then gave a performance of Korngold’s cinematic Violin Concerto in D major. From the outset there was complete unity between the musicians. Baeva’s vibrato laden sound was intrinsic to Korngold’s style, the first movement paced to peak just at the right moment. Baeva was technically brilliant, but also musically persuasive and expressive, echoed by the orchestra, drawing audience gasps. The second movement Romance was restrained and dignified, and in the finale, Baeva’s endurance was impressive, her polished sound and sheer virtuosity shining through. Above all, she communicated the music to the audience superlatively. Determined not to let Baeva leave without an encore, she didn’t disappoint with a rendition of Bacewicz’s Polish Caprice

The Ulster Orchestra played with a smaller body of strings than one may expect to hear in Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances. But this is where Rustioni completely came into his own, his balancing of woodwinds, percussion and brass being judicious throughout. Never allowing the sound to grow excessively, he crafted something very expressive in the work. The leaner string sounds were refreshing, yet didn’t sound uncharacteristic for the lavishly romantic harmonic language of the composer. 

The colours of the three movements ranged from black and white to the brightest, most vivid Technicolor. The opening movement could have been the soundtrack to Brief Encounter, with Rustioni’s careful management of the rhythmic motifs and stark textural contrasts. The central section was full of drama and there was a sledge-hammer like powerful recapitulation of the opening ideas. The monochromatic colours of this opening gave way to brighter primary colours, Rustioni celebrating the dance here, capturing the spirit of movement in an almost Disneyesque, but tastefully executed Fantasia sort of way. Changing the orchestral palette once more, with darker, more sinister colours, the final dance captures something of the silver screen once again. The music may have been Rachmaninov’s, but the interpretation was certainly Rustioni’s — maybe he was thinking The Wizard of Oz, but whatever it was, there was definitely something magical about the performance.