Bach’s Ricercar a 6 was the first of tonight’s “musical offerings”. Its sparse and unconventional orchestration in Webern’s arrangement is perhaps not the most satisfying of pieces, being a near hybrid of two opposing musical styles. As musical fragments were passed from player to player in the opening, there was an air of uncertainty and a lack of complete assurance. Certainty grew to a suitably noble and dignified conclusion as Webern morphed into Bach, setting the scene for the next piece.

Rafael Payare © Henry Fair
Rafael Payare
© Henry Fair

The central work in the programme was Schoenberg’s arrangement of Verklärte Nacht for string orchestra. The strings of the Ulster Orchestra, augmented with extra players, added richness to the sound, working effectively in the clear acoustic of the Ulster Hall. The post-Wagnerian musical language, with its chromaticism and cadential avoidance, give the work a restless, yearning feel. Its original version for string sextet (1899) harks back to the chamber music of Brahms (who had died dead two years previously). Based on the poem by Richard Dehmel, the work typifies the artistic movements of early 20th-century Vienna.

Verklärte Nacht is certainly not an easy play for musicians nor conductor, with its frequent key, tempo and metre changes, but the strings and Rafael Payare dealt with these challenges seamlessly. The opening was hushed with an austere and chilling air. Throughout, there was attention to musical detail, however the dynamics, especially the marked crescendos and diminuendos lacked dramatic rise and fall. On reaching the midway point, there was a transfiguration in Payare’s conducting — almost a eureka moment; as the sound from the orchestra changed, he visibly relaxed and the magic happened, the orchestra gave more and we were transported to a musical woodland basked in moonlight. A moment of breathless silence followed the concluding bars as the audience took it all in.

Conducting without a score, Payare led the orchestra through a youthful vision of Brahms’ Fourth Symphony, with a freshness in his approach. The first movement opened with an uneasy sense of urgency, perhaps with a sense of disregard for Brahms’ Allegro non troppo marking. In the exposition, the brass and strings dominated over the woodwind and the second subject was rather too loud. Through the development, Payare relaxed, and again the music blossomed. The Andante moderato was truly captivating. Payare seemed to take a step back and the let the musicians do the work. Each section and the individual moods contrasted and complemented each other beautifully. The third movement, perhaps the closest Brahms ever got to a symphonic Scherzo, had boisterous naivety. The marking Giocoso — with a playful quality – was taken literally, creating a childlike innocence with an uplifting sense of happiness and joy. The final movement, a set of variations on a chaconne, based on the a movement from Bach’s cantata BWV 150, was a strident romp – convincing, engaging and exciting.

This programme was well considered with strong connections between the works, coming full circle with the final movement of the Brahms. Neither the Bach/Webern or Schoenberg are the composers' finest works and, when pitted against Brahms’ finest symphony, it felt like a concert of two halves. The Ulster Orchestra were on top form doing everything that was asked of them. The extra strings made a considerable difference in Verklärte Nacht whilst the double basses added great sonority to the Brahms. Payare’s conducting was excessively animated on occasion, especially in the Schoenberg. He appeared to be less comfortable with this piece relying heavily on the score. The Brahms was another story, a score he appears to know intimately coupled with a security of knowing what he wants the notes to communicate. The whole message from tonight’s concert was when there is less conducting, more music happens — a relaxed Payare makes way for much more inspired music making.

***11