Belfast is no stranger to husband and wife teams on the stage together, tonight was the turn of Daniele Rustioni and Francesca Dego. Before their rendition of the youthful Mozart’s Third Violin Concerto, the “Strassburg”, the evening opened with Busoni’s neoclassical Comedy Overture. Written in a single night in 1897, this fervent piece was played with vivacious energy. The orchestral playing was well balanced, the tempo well-paced, allowing for a sense of fun to develop. Rustioni brought out all the colours and with each change of key he carefully changed the orchestral palette.

Dego joined the reduced forces of the Ulster Orchestra to give a polished Mozart performance. The forte chords of the opening Allegro were bold, leading into a poised orchestral exposition. Dego entered with agility. Her dynamics and phrasing throughout the movement had some incredibly subtle shading and these were mirrored by the orchestra. Vibrato from both soloist and string players was gentle and used to add just a little warmth. In the Adagio, the beauty of Dego’s playing soared through the hall floating above the restrained and balanced orchestral accompaniment. There was an instinctiveness between soloist and conductor that became evident here, an expressive use of rubato at key moments, careful and controlled but never overdone which provided a moment of reflection and a chance to breathe. Throughout the closing movement there was further meticulous phrasing and sophisticated use of dynamics. Dego and Rustioni brought out the folk-dance “Strassburg” episode with a capricious sense of fun. Ending the concerto, Dego showed her masterly skill with some left-hand pizzicato. Her playing was effortless and her technical control of the bow alone was astounding. An impeccable rendition of Paganini’s Caprice no.13 in B flat major was given as her encore. 

With glimmers of light on the horizon, a gentle, measured and precise horn call opened Schubert’s Symphony no. 9 in C major, the “Great”. As the introduction expanded some detail was missed, the string motifs becoming hidden in the texture. As the Adagio gave way to Allegro molto, momentum picked-up and the movement began to blossom with life as the sun rose in sonic illumination. The triplets figure of repeated notes had identical shape and direction no matter which instrumentalist played them. There was a genuine sense of a musical conversation as different ideas were passed from section to section. Woodwind playing was articulate, punctuating the strings with beauty. Climaxes in the music were handled with poise and dignity, unison passages had a crystal clear clarity and precision. An increasing tempo towards the end heightened the excitement and exuberantly intensified the sense of drama.  

From the outset the second movement had a distinctive change of character; gone was the sunshine of the first movement as Rustioni created a darker, almost sinister character. Christopher Blake's oboe solo here exhibited immaculate attention to musical detail and phrasing. The accompanying motifs in the strings had more clarity than in the opening movement. In this slow movement one could appreciate fully the subtle qualities of the string playing. The dotted rhythms echoed through the orchestra with impressive imitation. Towards the end, clouds dissipated and the sun shone through once again. 

The Scherzo lived up to its name. The strings here had an exceptional richness of tone. Rustioni balanced the sound meticulously in the Trio. From the da capo, Rustioni was more relaxed, almost dancing with joy. The final movement showcased the orchestra’s ability and endurance not to mention their virtuosity. Strings were full of richness, and the accuracy and precision of the dotted rhythms were remarkable. Crescendos were varied and measured creating intrigue. One got a sense the orchestra and conductor had enjoyed this journey through Schubert’s symphonic masterpiece. 

This was a concert to relish. This was the Ulster Orchestra on form. Schubert tested the players stamina to the very end but they never faultered. The sound throughout the evening was balanced, the transparency of the Ulster Hall acoustic allowing each layer of sound to be appreciated with clarity, all eloquently directed by Rustioni.