Howard Shelley’s association with the Ulster Orchestra is a long and lustrous one extending back over 30 years, in which he has appeared as soloist and conductor. On his many visits to Belfast, Shelley has developed a strong musical bond with the players and a connection with audiences evident by the warm welcome he received. This evening’s celebration was a heartfelt one from all, in what became a special evening of music making in which Shelley once again excelled as conductor/pianist.

Howard Shelley
© Eric Richmond

Forming the tried and tested concert format of overture, concerto, symphony, the programme was a very safe but unimaginative affair. The repertoire may not have been the best of each composer’s canon, but Shelley treated the pieces with utter respect, shaping every work into a thing of beauty. Opening with the overture from Weber’s Euryanthe, it was clear it was to be a special evening of music. Shelley brought a vibrancy and rhythmic drive to the quicker sections which contrasted against broader episodes that were phrased with elegance and balance. Throughout, the orchestral colours were bold and dramatic. The sense of unity in vision between orchestra and conductor were as one. The woodwind playing in particular was commendable.

Those accustomed with Shelley’s Mozart concerto performances over the years will be familiar with his placing of the piano in the centre of the orchestra with the keyboard facing the audience, tonight was no exception. Before taking the stool Shelley addressed the audience with a very informative, insightful and engaging talk on Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 25 in C major. In setting the context of the work and discussing musical ideas he compared and contrasted this work with some of Mozart’s other concertos by playing excerpts from at least five of them to highlight his points. The concerto was everything one would expect from Shelley – balanced, polished, poised, refined and unfolding naturally. Shelley’s conducting from the keyboard was as instinctive as ever. The first movement Allegro maestoso was warm with joyous orchestral episodes, Shelley bringing the woodwind to the fore. His playing was natural with a strong sense of spontaneity which continued to Hummel’s cadenza. The Andante was beautifully paced, the piano part played with freshness; whilst the relaxed third movement Allegretto had an air of persuasive sophistication.

Brahms’ First Symphony, a work that is not always convincing in performance, completed the programme. The first movement had momentum sustained through the opening Un poco sostenuto marking before moving naturally on to the Allegro. The orchestral colours were sonorous and a finely balanced sound lightened the denser textures in what was a refined rendition. The rich sonorities of the Andante sostenuto were beautiful executed by the orchestra with beguiling solos from clarinet, oboe, French horn and violin bringing a sense of intimacy. The measured approach Shelley took in the third movement allowed the strings lines to evolve organically, but exaggerated clarinet playing punctured the reverie momentarily. Pacing the fourth movement — Adagio – Allegro non troppo con brio – to perfection, Shelley fully captured a sense of foreboding in the opening bars. The horn calls heralding the uplifting Beethoven-esque melody was full of impact, emphasising its importance and ending the work with a sense of grandeur. A triumphant evening overall, the Ulster Orchestra gave Shelley their all, marking this significant birthday with a memorable concert.