For the music of Strauss and Mahler one might expect a larger complement of strings than the ten first violins fielded by the Ulster Orchestra to balance the woodwind and brass. The revelation of this evening, however, was how Daniele Rustioni made this work to his advantage. Belfast’s Ulster Hall is famed for its acoustic, which can make or break a concert with its crystal clear sonics and compact performing space.

Daniele Rustioni
© David Kinghan

There was just one work in the first half – Richard Strauss’ Death and Transfiguration. The opening was impactful with a colourful and sonorous bloom around the strings, blowing any reservations about the orchestra's size clean out of the water and showing a mastery of balance with careful and subtle dynamics. Rustioni's shaping of phrases had dignity; crescendos and diminuendos had subtlety and the entire performance was judiciously balanced, swells of the orchestral sound perfectly judged, never pushing the players to their extremes. Rustioni commanded an authoritative air throughout finding the contrast between the darker, turbulent, adrenaline filled moments and the more tender, delicate, lighter moments. His tempo choices were judicious and made dramatic use of the reverberant hall. 

Daniele Rustioni conducts the Ulster Orchestra
© David Kinghan

Not only is Rustioni a great communicator musically, he is a great speaker too. Addressing the audience briefly prior to the second half, he gave some insight into his understanding of Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, describing it as a “long journey”. Despite being almost an hour in length, the captivating performance seemed to pass in a matter of seconds. The opening movement began with a pastoral, positive and uplifting ambience, classical in nature akin to the first movement of Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony. The lines were treated as folk melodies, with a cantabile tone matching the soprano part in the concluding movement, illustrating and building an arching structure over the entire work.

A pastoral theme certainly coloured the second movement, especially in the solos. The folk-like elements were not overly polished, but had a rustic charm and distinctive character. A spacious and slower third movement seemed to make the most of the hall’s acoustic. Whilst not the most profound music Mahler ever wrote, Rustioni made this movement distinctively his own. The lightness of string vibrato and purity of the intonation was highly distinctive. 

Erika Baikoff and the Ulster Orchestra
© David Kinghan

The audience were warned “an angel will appear”. By “angel”, Rustioni meant soprano Erika Baikoff. Appearing at the door of the platform at the darkest, loudest moment of the third movement, as if suddenly being transported and deposited to another world, there was something theatrical about her entry. Almost gliding to the front of the stage prior to singing, Baikoff moved elegantly. Obviously familiar with the solo line, Baikoff knew how to emphasise the innocent persona, with simplicity and sincerity. Whilst an absolutely beautiful voice, her projection to the back of the modestly sized auditorium was underpowered in the denser passages, clouding the clarity of her otherwise clear diction and seraphically poignant performance. Despite this, Baikoff complemented Rustioni wholeheartedly. 

This isn’t how I envisage this symphony, preferring something darker, but Rustioni offered a sweeping and insightful interpretation. The considerable number of young people in the audience revelled in the music – possibly their first experience of live Mahler – with infectious delight, a testament to Rustioni’s ability to be universally communicative and coaxing in everything he does.