Pianissimo tremolos and a grumbling organ pedal filled the Ulster Hall with the ethereal sound of the darkest moment just before sunrise, which opens Richard Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra. The rising trumpet figure was blemished, a point at which the performance could have gone two ways, fortunately the right path was chosen — apocalypse averted as Payare’s virtual music rocket soared for space in an aurora of incandescent luminosity.

Rafael Payare © BGE Rafael Payare
Rafael Payare
© BGE Rafael Payare

Each of the nine sections that make up Strauss’ tone poem are named after the chapters of Fredrick Nietzsche’s book. The second section entitled Of Those of The World Beyond was shadowed by darkest clouds. The Mulholland Organ can be a difficult beast to tame, but here balance was struck by Payare allowing it to be appreciated against the strings which had an exceptionally luscious and mellifluous tone. The full Straussian sound was fully captured in the section entitled Of the Great Longing. The brass excelled in the fourth section when horns cut through the texture without perturbing. A solemn cloud returned in The Grave Song, dark colours dominated with an increased melancholia. The Convalescent is where Payare and the UO made the biggest impact, the climax well-paced and controlled, full-bodied, but not excessively loud, just right for the hall. A waltz organically grew in which the UO leader played a beguiling solo. There was a breathlessness, the audience held mesmerised, in this exceptional performance, so that 30 minutes felt like seconds, gone in the blink of an eye.

Payare has saved Shostakovich’s most famous “war symphony” — the “Leningrad” – until the end of his explorations. The events of 1942 must have been truly extraordinary — the resilience of the people through the siege and the ability to get an orchestra of emaciated musicians to give the premiere this piece is beyond the comprehension of many of us, demonstrating the best and worst of humanity. Taking the tempo closer to Allegro than Shostakovich’s marking of Allegretto, a strident, confident, rich and completely unified string sound marked the beginning, softer passages of this opening had a plaintive quality, allowing the impeccably phrased music to speak. The quicker tempo allowed Payare to increase the voracity and intensity of the march section, which grew from an almost inaudible pianissimo from one lone snare drum placed in the choir stalls. With each repetition, the musical mangle was cranked harder as the orchestra and audience were put through it repeatedly, drawing out every bit of emotion. The climax — now with three snare drummers, bold and intense with a sense of dignified restraint, not overly loud, a balance difficult to achieve with such a huge orchestra.

The second movement was full of heightened emotion, Payare using some very gentle rubato to add interest. The central section was triumphantly grand, contrasting, complementing the restrained outer sections. Transitions between sections were seamless. 

Payare also took the Adagio quickly, which wasn’t disappointing — just different, giving the listener another thought to ponder. Slower tempos increase the intensity here, and we’d had many intense moments all evening. Payare’s conducting was precise. As the third movement morphs into the fourth, the vehemence prevailing in the first movement returned with increased ferocity. The range of colours and moods captured here was remarkable, especially in the softer sections. The brass came into their own with flawless execution of their lines leading towards an exhilarating climax.

This band didn’t sound like the Ulster Orchestra per se, as the core 63 players were expanded to over 100. What Payare did to make these players sound like the cogs of a well-oiled Soviet machine was nothing short of remarkable. The string sound was impressive with impeccable intonation; wind playing was full of rich tone, especially from piccolo, oboe and bassoon; stars of the orchestra were the percussionists for their endurance. The three snare drummers played with exact precision in the Shostakovich. This was certainly an evening Belfast’s audience will talk about for a very long time; the best concert of this Shostakovich series was certainly saved until last.