The Ulster Orchestra's flying visit to Birmingham failed to excite Symphony Hall regulars to turn out in large numbers. Programme architecture was at fault too, on a Monday, the least attractive night of the week for many. Just two pieces – Brahms' Violin Concerto in D major and, post interval, Symphony no. 1 in E minor by Sibelius – did not make for the most attractive programme, especially considering the CBSO does Sibelius so well, thanks in no small part to the groundwork covered by Helsinki-born Sakari Oramo during the decade he conducted the orchestra up to 2008.

Alina Ibragimova © Eva Vermandel
Alina Ibragimova
© Eva Vermandel

The mountain to climb proved too much for Rafael Payare. Sibelius deserves playing with a considerable depth of emotion in the many expressive and sonorous passages. The Ulster Orchestra struggled to create a depth of emotion and to deliver fastidiuos pizzicato playing.

Glorious motifs emerged from the hushed timpani roll and desolate opening clarinet solo. Payare worked hard in the first movement to energise the brass section in what has been described by Sibelius scholar, Robert Layton, as a "tour de force". However, the orchestra did not always achieve great cohesion. Individual horn and cello solos were accompanied by ominous pizzicatos in the second movement prior to a furious climax which splinters and fades away. More elaborate pizzicato playing in the third movement competed with timpanist Mark McDonald's frantic timpani hammering.

Sibelius' passionate orchestration develops in the last movement with the return of the clarinet so prominent at the start, plus the conspicuous horns providing excellent, dependable contributions. As an ex-horn principal, Payare maintained their prominence throughout the symphony, the players responding very positively. They combined to build the tension in the last movement with the drama of enthusiastically delivered dance-like rhythms. Valedictory pizzicato chords brought the Ulster Orchestra's flying visit to an end. An encore would have been in order.

Earlier in the concert an anticipated encore from Alina Ibragimova failed to emerge despite four calls by audience and musicians alike. Despite the lack of an encore, the evening was made very worthwhile by her Brahms performance of breathtaking virtuosity. Ibragimova is a stunning artist, full of naturalness. Dressed in a long sage-green dress with a splash of purple down one side, she oozed competence. Everything was thoughtfully played, beautifully interpreted and, as hoped for, with the Joachim cadenza. Complicated rhythmic passages were tackled in a positive manner and thrilling impetuosity emerged in the dazzling displays of fireworks. Ibragimova put every ounce of effort into her performance. Confidently leading the orchestra throughout, her sensational development of the extrovert finale showed her love of the work. Her rapt concentration and open-hearted warmth plus superb technical control were rewarded with thunderous applause from the small audience. She reigned supreme in the concert hall: she was in her element. She was partnered by Payare with carefully disciplined orchestral support, never overdriven. 

***11