Intriguingly entitled “Exotic Storytellers”, this Ulster Orchestra concert paired Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante défunte and Berlioz’s Les nuits d’été in the first half, followed by the Rimsky-Korsakov's whimsical Scheherazade. Under the empathetic leadership of the orchestra’s associate conductor Jac van Steen, the Ulster Orchestra and Irish mezzo soprano Rachel Kelly delivered spirited and well-rounded performances of this highly evocative programme. Ravel’s elegiac Pavane is suitably restrained in the orchestra’s interpretation, which succeeds in maintaining the tension throughout the long melodic lines of the piece’s recurring theme. The wind section in particular, one of the orchestra’s strengths, excels in emphasising the intimate tone of the work’s lucid structure as the theme emerges in the oboe subsequent to its introduction by the horn.

Rachel Kelly © Gerard Collett
Rachel Kelly
© Gerard Collett

Berlioz’s song cycle Les nuits d’été, which is understood to have been inspired by the composer’s increasing estrangement from his first wife, comprises six poems (by Théophile Gautier) set to music, with each capturing a different mood corresponding to the text. Rachel Kelly is a recent graduate from the Royal Opera House’s Jette Parker Young Artist Programme. Her operatic background became immediately apparent in her ability to imbue each poem with a sense of narrative and dramatic development. Her bright soprano has crystalline clarity and sparkled in the higher ranges of Villanelle's light-footed and playful celebration of spring. Le spectre de la rose, a tale of a withered rose’s ghost, opens with a tender cantilena in the woodwinds, set against gently murmuring strings. Kelly’s sensitive phrasing captured the subtle changes in atmosphere, which oscillates between tender reminiscences and the foreboding of impending loss and pain. Berlioz’s mastery of emotive orchestration comes to the fore in the lament of Sur les lagunes, in which a sailor mourns the death of his beloved. Brooding strings set the mood of this song, whose respective stanzas culminate in an agitated cry of despair, followed by a descending scale extending the vocal line and mirroring the crushing waves of the wild sea. After the eerie Au cimetière: Clair de lune, with its high-pitched whirrs in the violins enhancing the ghostly atmosphere, the piece draws to conclusion with the rousing L'île inconnue, which evokes the image of a utopian island where eternal love is attainable. This fine rendition benefited greatly from Jac van Steen’s experience with conducting opera, which not only enabled him to respond immediately to Kelly’s subtle rubati but also allowed him to balance the orchestra’s sound perfectly against this young singer’s voice.

Written in 1888, Scheherazade adapts the wondrous magic of the Persian fairy tale collection The Thousand and One Nights, from which its main subjects – a brutal sultan and his young bride Scheherazade – are drawn. Rimsky-Korsakov embarks on a musical journey that reflects not only his protagonists' characters in two contrasting themes but also indulges in the eclectic imagery and exotic soundscape of the orient. The first movement introduces the patriarchal sultan with a stern motif in the low strings and brass, immediately followed by the sensuously sweet and ornate violin solo introducing the story teller Scheherazade. The Ulster Orchestra’s leader Tamás Kocsis’ interpretation of the recurring violin solo was emotionally engaging, the elongated melodious phrases suiting his stylish playing.

Various solo passages in the opening movement, which comprise undulating melodies in the clarinet, flute and horn accompanied by arpeggios in the cello were executed with fervour and precision. The second movement begins with a reintroduction of Scheherazade's theme and features an enthralling, sweeping melody in the bassoon and oboe, which the Ulster Orchestra interpreted with great feeling for nuanced dynamics. The subsequent sections invoke quasi-oriental musical styles, with highly ornate, circulating melodies in the woodwinds accompanied by energetic pizzicati in the strings.

Following a mellow third movement, the finale is a vivid orchestral showpiece, harking back to brass fanfares from the second movement. During the thundering last encounter with the sultan’s theme, the Ulster Orchestra’s slightly undernourished string section was positively drowned out by the brass’ tour de force, finally calming to conclude with the delicate tone of the Scheherazade’s theme one last time.