Rafael Payare has paired each of the Shostakovich war symphonies with a work by Richard Strauss this season in Belfast. The seldom performed Eighth was teamed with another rarity, Strauss’ Le Bourgeois gentilhomme. Premiered in 1917, this suite of music is taken from his incidental music for Hugo Von Hofmannsthal’s adaptation of Molière’s play and composed in 1912. This neoclassical work is scored for a modest orchestra in which Strauss prescribes the exact number of strings.

Rafael Payare © Henry Fair
Rafael Payare
© Henry Fair

The small orchestra was closely packed, allowing the players to interact as if in a chamber ensemble, allowing fun, intimacy and spontaneity. The sparkling overture, brimmed with lighthearted elegance. With the brass and woodwind colours, Payare created interest and intrigue coupled with crisp articulation throughout. A minuet followed, suitably paced, with commendable solos from Tamás Kocsis (violin), Charles-Antoine Duflot (cello) and Colin Fleming (flute). The third movement, The Fencing Master was mostly well balanced, however horns tended to over project at times, further impressive solos here from Christopher Deacon (trumpet) and Dawn Hardwick (piano). Entrance and Dance of the Tailors had another exemplary solo from viola player William Goodwin. Varied and contrasting dynamics created much light and shade. The Lully Minuet had some disappointing balance issues with the winds, sometimes too distant, at others overpowering but the strings came to the fore in the Entrance of Cléonte with exquisite attention to detail, especially in the softer passages. There was some delicate, sympathetic percussion playing here. The Prelude to Act 2, with its sense of fun, was intriguing to watch as well due to its interplay between the players; this was music with real intimacy. The most substantial movement, The Dinner, was full of colour and virtuosity from all players but the highlight without doubt was the beguiling cello solo. The suite showcased the skill of the orchestra’s principal players to perfection. The delicate nature of the music needed a more restrained style of conducting, whilst amply directed, Payare was at times rather animated.

Post interval, one was faced with a huge orchestra, which felt like the might of the Red Army approaching, especially after the Strauss. Premiered in 1943, coming hot on the heels of the "Leningrad", the only possible comparison between the two symphonies is their duration and titanic orchestration. The opening, not too dissimilar to the Fifth in its motivic material and employment of strings, was very powerful. The lower strings played with purpose setting a foreboding backdrop. When the first violins entered, the sound was chilly but not biting, their intonation perfect. The movement had momentum and Payare’s restrained conducting allowed the music to speak. At the climax there were some slight balance issues, insufficient strings failed to offset the mammoth woodwind sound, the horns cut through excessively and the xylophone was almost inaudible, but the emotional impact of the sound was strong. There were two commendable cor anglais solos from Colin Stark. The string harmonics that conclude the movement lacked total assurance. 

The Allegretto was characterful, but with an overly restrained tempo. The dialogue between the E flat clarinet and piccolo was the highlight. The timbre of the xylophone was too rounded, lacking brittleness. All the highest pitched sounds in the orchestral palette had a beauty, whilst admirable in their execution, but their tone was too warm for Shostakovich. The central movement, started impressively by the violas, had a refinement about it but wasn’t completely convincing. Couplet phrases here lacked sufficient leanings on the first notes. The string playing was pristine in its execution throughout and matched equally by the four flutes, whose flutter tonguing was remarkable.

The fourth movement, paced with gravitas, had many of the audience on the edge of their seats. The sound was rich from the orchestra. The quieter sections were balanced to perfection, the grander passages suffered again from insufficient string sound. The concluding Allegretto was impressive alone for the sheer beauty of sound. All the musicians were impeccable in their playing and shared completely in Payare’s vision, following his every movement with purpose. There were fine solos again from cello and viola. The string sonorities bringing the piece to its close were tremendous, with the sinister and unsettling double bass motif.

This undoubtedly fine concert could have been exceptional. The calibre of the playing was extremely high. There was a level of precision throughout, but some aspects of the performance narrowly missed the mark. The devil is in the detail, and with some fine tuning this concert could have been on another plain. Whilst the endurance and skill of the players was commendable, the rawness, the roughness and edginess of sound to make a Shostakovich totally convincing had been polished out to a pristine shine.