Three snapshots of three composers: the three works programmed were composed either side of the Atlantic between 1935-1944 in difficult times. Andrew Litton brought his distinctive insights to the fore in these exceptional pieces. Placing the works in reverse chronological order, Aaron Copland’s suite from the ballet Appalachian Spring (1944) appeared first. Originally scored for just 13 instruments, the suite extracts eight movements which are arranged for full orchestra. With this understanding, Litton created a remarkable level of intimacy with the Ulster Orchestra knowing with absolute certainty how to temper this quintessentially American piece with affinity. The unhurried opening had clarity and transparency with a radiance of light, evoking a vibrant panorama of the American Prairies. In the quicker folk-like sections the orchestral sound was polished and well-balanced, especially in the percussion. The darkly emotional pas de deux was handled with great sensitivity, whilst the famous hymn tune “The Gift To Be Simple” was beautifully executed simply by broadening the tempo. Litton brought to this rendition a tenderness throughout.

Andrew Litton © Steve J Sherman
Andrew Litton
© Steve J Sherman

Violinist Kurt Nikkanen arrived on the platform barely giving the audience a chance to breathe before launching into Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto (1941). Barber’s opening lyrical melody was played with forthright determination, leaving no space for ambiguity. Despite the overriding lyricism, Nikkanen found shadows in the most intense episodes, whilst in the brighter ones Litton caressed the orchestral sound to create a comforting lightness. The second movement was deeply melancholic, Nikkanen bringing a plaintive quality, the raw tone of his g-string magnifying the sentiment. The contrasting third movement which is full of technical wizardry for the violinist, was executed with precision and charismatic virtuosity. Nikkanen’s tone throughout was very distinctive, often with a gentle vibrato, slightly piercing, contrasting over the orchestra’s more sonorous sounds. His edgy sound brought a consistency to this piece, uniting all three movements. Litton and Nikkanen successfully shared the same vision of this work – darker, conflicted, monochromatic and intense. The sombreness of Bach’s sarabande from the Violin Partita no. 2 in D minor provided a fitting encore.

Litton’s perception of William Walton is one not seen through English eyes: Litton’s penetrated deeper, under the veneer of the “stiff upper-lip”, to reveal the inner struggles of this composer. The Copland and Barber of the first half both required modestly proportioned ensembles, which suits the size of the UO; Walton’s first symphony (1935) usually has a slightly larger complement of strings for a richness of sound, but with Litton’s angular take on the work, the small number employed a more aggressive attack, bringing a different, harsher tonal quality, matching Litton’s vision throughout. Walton’s specific tempo indications were followed by Litton wholeheartedly. The first movement, Allegro assai, was highly spirited – turbulent, troubled, questioning. Litton delayed the climax in this highly energetic movement, whilst accentuated brass amplified the sense of agitation. The boisterous quasi-Scherzo, Presto con malizia, brimmed with clear articulation and further punchy brass. Completely changing the mood in the third movement, Andante con malinconia, Litton sought-out the bleakness and desolation in this deeply uneasy movement. Atlantic winds of change blew away the clouds of darkness finding resolution in the Maestoso – brioso ed ardentemente. The UO with unfloundering stamina gave Litton everything he commanded. This rhythmically intense finale typified Litton’s very refreshing impression of Walton.

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