La generazione dell’Ottanta or “Generation of 1880” may not been as well known as the “Mighty Handful” or “Les Six”, but in his programme based around four Italian composers, Daniele Rustioni brought a highly innovative concert to Belfast, snapshotting these composers. Like a postcard, Rustioni focused the aperture a seldom performed quartet of intriguing compositions, bringing into focus fine works worthy of more exposure.

Daniele Rustioni
© David Kinghan

Ildebrando Pizzetti was a new composer to me. His suite La Pisanellla opened the evening. Written in 1913 it was given its premiere at the Théâtre du Châtelet. Its brief movements reference Stravinsky’s Petrushka and Puccini’s La bohème. The Quayside at Famagusta bustled with rhythmic energy, Rustioni carefully shaping the phrasing and episodes in this highly evocative opening. The Ulster Orchestra’s strings, modest in number, brought much colouration to the central Dance of Poverty and of Perfect Love, whilst the Dance of Love and Perfumed Death demonstrated how Rustioni views silence as important as the music itself.  

In Alfredo Casella's Concerto romano for organ, brass, timpani and strings, the orchestra was joined by organist Martin Riccabona. Composed in 1926 for the world’s largest organ in Wanamaker’s Department Store, Philadelphia, it worked tremendously well in the modestly sized auditorium. This three movement concerto was balanced perfectly by both conductor and organist bringing a performance of tight precision. The range of colours Riccabona drew from the instrument at his disposal was remarkable. He not only showed his virtuosity in the highly accomplished playing but also with his insight and appropriate choice of stops; it is very easy to pull all the stops out on the beast of an instrument that is the Mulholland Organ. With Casella's unusual choice of instrumentation, the brass shone out with its distinctive interjections. The ensemble was delicately handled by Rustioni, making both organ and orchestra judiciously and superbly equal.

Daniele Rustioni conducts the Ulster Orchestra
© David Kinghan

Addressing the audience post interval, as Rustioni often does, his thoughts and humour were warmly received. Introducing Gian Francesco Malipiero’s Fantastie di ogni giorno of 1953, Rustioni described it as “a mysterious piece” and “atmospheric”. Going further to say “it ends with a nightmare” and it was a “trip in the mind”, it certainly was. Rustioni delved deep into all the turbulent emotions of this psychologically troubled piece with a range of psychedelic colours, with a sudden ending catching the audience by surprise. A difficult and challenging listen, it was engaging and showed what a profound communicator Rustioni is to deliver a performance with such impact.

The only familiar work on the programme was Ottorino Respighi’s orchestral showpiece The Fountains of Rome, which Rustioni brought to life with vivacity. The transparency in the orchestral textures was impressive, each of the four episodes brimming with beauty and warmth. Silence prevailed after the sunset on Villa Medici. Rustioni announced “it’s so unusual for me to end a programme piano”, so an encore by Paolo Marzocchi followed, rounding off the concert in style. 

The Ulster Orchestra gave their utmost all evening with playing of the highest order, a commendable feat in such challenging works. In his earlier address Rustioni gave his insight into the programme as “an essay on how Italian composers use the orchestra”. If this was Rustioni’s study, he deserves full marks — or in this case, five stars.