Returning to Belfast, the husband and wife team of Daniele Rustioni and Francesca Dego brought an unusual, but passionate Valentine’s Day programme to Ulster Hall. In his pre-concert talk, Rustioni described the three Russian composers featured in the programme as “masters of orchestration”. Rustioni’s insights were intrinsic and sympathetic to the composers' individual voices. Opening with the Balcony Scene from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, the magic was instantaneous. With his baton, Rustioni conjured-up all the necessary communicative prowess to evoke the storytelling in the music. He embraced the luscious orchestral colours lovingly, caressing the string lines with beautiful phrasing which highlighted the beauty within the music.

Francesca Dego
© Davide Cerati

Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto no. 1 in A minor, written for Oistrakh, is a real tour de force for any violinist and Dego proved the perfect exponent. Despite the large orchestration, Rustioni struck the perfect balance throughout, never overshadowing the soloist. The chemistry between Dego, Rustioni and the orchestra allowed them to come together as one. From the outset, the dark, sinister and shadowy mood was immediate. Dego aptly spun an icy thread out of her melodic line, carefully tempering vibrato to enhance the chilling atmosphere of the opening Nocturne. The rhythmic precision of the woodwind in the Scherzo was impressive, supporting Dego flawlessly. She brought something more lyrical to the third movement Passacaglia, with her warming subtle tone. In the extended cadenza linking the final two movements, Dego commanded the stage with authority. She created an intense air, one of stillness and breathlessness, but yet incredibly piercing. The hugely demanding final movement — Burlesque, showcased her unwavering stamina, technical assurance and persuasive interpretation. An excellent performance of an under appreciated concerto.

At the beginning of the season, Rustioni promised some “surprises”, in this instance in the form of an encore. Rustioni took to the piano to accompany Dego in Fritz Kreisler’s Farewell to Cucullain (Londonderry Air). Dego explained the context of the piece, with Kreisler performing the piece in Northern Ireland in 1936. Dego’s tone was silvery as together they played this sentimental melody with conviction, but without self-indulgence, bringing tears to the eyes of several in the audience. 

Discussing Tchaikovsky’s Manfred, Rustioni commented “it’s a big challenge for the conductor and orchestra to maintain the tension”. Rustioni’s vision and the orchestra’s enduring energy created an unforgettable rendition. His experience in the theatre brought an operatic sense of drama to this symphony. The first movement was sonorous, elemental and majestic. Throughout the Scherzo-like second movement there was drama, the unity in the woodwind shone through once more with further rhythmic precision and clarity of articulation. In complete contrast, in the slow third movement Rustioni found lyricism, emphasising all the rustic charm. The final movement had gravitas, with a deep emotion depicting Manfred’s demise. The slightly out of tune, but resplendent sounding Mulholland organ couldn’t diminish the inherent musical intelligence and integrity of this performance. The UO excelled, following Rustioni wholeheartedly, giving him everything he asked for. His clear direction left for no ambiguity, meeting every challenge admirably, completing a formidable evening with yet another superb performance by this orchestra.