The Ulster Orchestra’s penultimate concert of the season produced an evening which didn’t disappoint . Cycling from Northern Ireland composer Patrick Brennan opened the concert. In this six minute piece, cycling refers not to bicycling, but to the interval and structural forms in the work. The composer notes “harmonically complex spectra are sacrificed in favour of bold primary colours with just a few microtones to enhance resonance,” but it felt more monochrome with its unvarying textures. This slow moving piece was superbly played by the Ulster Orchestra, but on reflection it felt somewhat misplaced in this chiefly Russian programme.

It’s not difficult to understand why Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto is one of the world’s most loved pieces, packed with memorable melodies, sweeping emotions and dazzling shows of pianistic virtuosity. On stepping onto the platform, Olari Elts and Barry Douglas took their positions quickly and, without giving the audience chance to breathe, Douglas launched straight into the introductory chords, suitably paced. When the strings entered, one was immediately struck by the beauty, richness and unity of the playing. Phrases were shaped musically but without fussiness, Elts balancing the orchestra judiciously. Douglas’ right-hand melodies were projected with beauty of tone, left-hand lines were full of rhythmic precision and phrased with musical integrity. 

The second movement was stripped of sentimentality. Elts and Douglas used subtle rubato, but this was handled with sensitivity and care. Woodwind solos were executed perfectly. The entire movement was captivating and there was a complete stillness in the hall. On reaching the final movement, taking it quickly, Douglas dazzled with his virtuosity. It was clear that this was an interpretation on which Elts and Douglas shared the same vision throughout, the interplay between the orchestra and soloist testament to this. In the closing bars, the excitement was heightened with an increasing tempo and measured crescendo as Douglas strode forwards with unfloundering energy. One doesn’t often hear Rachmaninov as good as this, a crisp performance, uncloying, full of rhythmic precision.

For the second half, the piano was repositioned to the centre of the orchestra for Stravinsky’s Petrushka (1947 version), fittingly so for the role this instrument has in this work. Elts knows this isn’t just an orchestral showpiece, but a ballet, a foresight which prevailed throughout. Each of the four tableau brimmed with energy and excitement; rhythms were sharp and the vivid colours contained within were kaleidoscopic.

From the outset one could sense the mood of the Shrovetide Fair, with energy and excitement, the flutes pitted against the strings perfectly as the puppets sprang to life. It is in the Russian Dance in which the piano really comes into its own, Dawn Hardwick playing with rhythmic accuracy and vitality. In the thinner textures of the music of the second tableau, the individual players of the orchestra shone in their flawless executions, it felt as if the players were incredibly well-rehearsed and knew instinctively what each other was doing whilst able to follow Elts’ crystal clear conducting.

The third tableau had a wide range of expression and colours intensely drawing out every aspect of the story. Woodwinds played their parts with complete precision and French horns were commendable too for their unwavering execution, trumpet solos were hugely impressive. The return of the music for Shrovetide Fair in the fourth tableau was now very different in character. The nuances of each dance were fully realised giving each one a character all of its own. Elts knew how to intensify the energy and excitement in Stravinsky’s score, making the tambourine drop — the death of Petrushka even more dramatic. The closing bars were highly enigmatic.

Petrushka seemed to fit the Ulster Orchestra like a glove, the balance of strings to winds and percussion in that acoustic could not have been bettered. Elts put the storytelling first and foremost and with the orchestra’s flawless playing made this a captivating performance.