The theme of the Ulster Orchestra’s programme was clear, an evening of music inspired by the dances and folk music of Central Europe. Opening with Kodály’s Dances of Marosszék, written in 1927 for piano and orchestrated by the composer in 1930, this 11-minute piece is not Kodály’s finest composition as it lacks the innovation of the more popular Dances of Galanta. Despite the short-givings there were a number of highlights such as principal oboist Christopher Blake’s vocally phrased solos and the range of colours from the strings. This was overall a polished performance from guest conductor Tito Muñoz.

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet
© Benjamin Ealovega

The breadth of pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet’s repertoire is remarkable. His interpretations of Bartók’s piano concertos have gained much attention. Bringing the third to the Ulster Hall, Bavouzet’s playing was nothing short of spectacular. From the first notes of the Allegretto, Bavouzet was completely engaged as he brought a gentle lyricism to the opening movement’s first theme. Throughout the second theme, his phrasing was shaped with a sense of architecture and the articulation was precise and crisp, however, this was not echoed by the orchestra to the same extent, most noticeably the woodwinds. In the second movement Adagio religioso, Muñoz and Bavouzet created a complete sense of reverie. Bavouzet voiced the chords exquisitely, strings played with tenderness as both orchestra and pianist created a musical portrait finding much melancholia and anguish. The Allegro vivace was full of excitement. Percussion was subtly balanced and highly effective adding depth to the orchestral palette. Bavouzet’s boundless enthusiasm and energy was unwavering to the end.

Returning for an encore, Bavouzet delighted with Debussy’s L’isle joyeuse. In this beguiling rendition, Bavouzet showed what an extraordinary painter of pianistic colour he is once more. It was difficult to believe this was the same pianist on the same Steinway, demonstrating his deep ability to temper his tone to the textures and timbres of different composers, with complete conviction.

Dvořák’s uplifting Eighth Symphony completed the programme. After the rhythmically intense first half, the melodiousness of this work was truly welcomed. Muñoz gave a fair rendition, capturing the moods and feelings appropriately, but it lacked the shine, glimmer and craftsmanship of the finest Bohemian crystal. After the darkness dissipated in the opening, the Allegro con brio sprang to life. The Adagio started just a little too loudly, Muñoz tempered the dynamics eventually creating a hushed atmosphere. The third movement was the most musically convincing, evoking a Slavonic dance. A slightly broader Allegro ma non troppo made some sections feel slightly pedestrian, but tempo increased towards the end to bring about a suitably satisfying conclusion. Orchestral detail was disappointingly uneven throughout, strings lacking crisp articulation in the first movement, but the second movement had some beautifully crafted woodwind playing, especially from the clarinets. Horns were commendable in the precision of their trills, but they had occasional blemishes in the outer movements, whilst inaccuracies on trumpets in the finale were noticeable. A very mixed evening in an Ulster Orchestra season, which has been superb thus far.