Bringing the Ulster Orchestra’s season to a close, Rafael Payare gave two concerts in Belfast this week in what is his penultimate season as their principal conductor. In this concert Payare took two powerful pieces of the mid-20th century to contrast with the rich late-Romantic soundworld of Gustav Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder, in which he was joined by the mezzo-soprano Katarina Karnéus. The Ulster Orchestra with its modest size of 63 core players does not often get the opportunity to perform some of these large scale works, so tonight’s concert gave the regular concert audience a rare chance to hear such repertoire.

Rafael Payare © Bjørn Bertheussen
Rafael Payare
© Bjørn Bertheussen

Opening the concert, Payare conducted the popular Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, Benjamin Britten’s opera of 1945. These contain some of Britten’s most dramatic instrumental music due to their creative use of orchestral colour, mood and imaginative orchestration. All the emotions of this tragic story are depicted in these characterful orchestral episodes. The opening interlude, “Dawn” employs unison flutes and violins to create a cold and bleak depiction of the sea, and the chill Payare created contrasted with the rare summery Belfast evening. Without hesitation or pause for breath, Payare continued headlong into “Sunday Morning”. While well paced, some of the phrases lacked musical shaping. The lilting figure with gentle rise and fall in the third interlude, “Moonlight”, needed more emphasis to effectively depict those gently lapping waves. Payare’s vision of a turbulent sea was clear in the final interlude of the set, “Storm”. It lacked subtlety and was very loud, perhaps too loud, but it certainly brought a rousing close to the first part of the concert and was applauded generously.

The central work in the programme was Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder, written in the years 1901–2. Each of the five songs has a unique texture and delicate orchestration; this does not mean the orchestra was reduced in size but rather it was used carefully to create a magical and ethereal mood. Katarina Karnéus entered with a degree of authority and complete focus. Throughout the performance her rich tone carried effortlessly through the hall while Payare guided the orchestra with a unity of purpose to accompany but not overshadow. Not once during the cycle did it seem that Karnéus wasn’t fully in control – leading and commanding, making the interpretation truly her own. From the first song – a beautiful song of love – Karnéus drew you into her world. On reaching the fourth and fifth songs Karnéus had created a serene sense of awe and subliminal unity. Her voice, always soft, made the packed hall sit in complete stillness. Colin Stark’s poignant cor anglais solo didn’t go unnoticed. The audience were completely transfixed, floating in another world during the concluding song. A moment of complete silence fell as they contemplated the musical journey Karnéus had taken them on. 

Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony is a world away from Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder. With its dense textures and kaleidoscopic colour it provided a dramatic climax to the end of the season. Written and premiered in 1937, it is arguably his finest work in the genre. Payare was obviously at one with this piece, confidently conducting without a score. His focus was on the players throughout, directing them passionately and enthusiastically. The symphony opens slowly and dramatically, which captured attention from the first note. The orchestra played with refinement through both the first and second movements, perhaps too much so: while the sound was beautiful, it had a politeness about it, rather than raw Russian emotion. On reaching the third movement, the playing was freer, more raw, more Russian, the instrumentalists putting their faith in the hands of an animated Payare. There was fine playing from the violins and the winds as the slow movement built up a sinister tension. In the finale the orchestra truly became one with Payare, as they certainly whipped themselves into a frenzy of musical ecstasy. The applause and standing ovation was worth it for that final movement alone.

This has been a reviltalising season for the Ulster Orchestra; playing to a full house on numerous occasions and with a sizeable contingent of younger people has created an energy and buzz in Ulster Hall. It appears that Payare has been taken to the hearts of the Belfast audience. We can only hope this momentum carries through Payare’s last season with the orchestra in 2018/19 as he explores the music of Richard Strauss and Shostakovich’s War Symphonies. Judging from tonight’s performance this could be his raison d’être, leaving behind a high bar for his successor to carry forward.