Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto and Sibelius’ Second Symphony are two staples of the core repertoire and are certain to attract an audience. Combine this with the pianist Simon Trpčeski and you are guaranteed good ticket sales. Like many in the packed Ulster Hall, I thought I knew both works inside out. Simon Trpčeski and Gabriel Bebeşelea had a vision of Brahms’ Piano Concerto no. 2 in B flat major which was one full of the capricious energy of a younger man, bursting with the spirit found in the Op.79 rhapsodies of 1879, composed three years earlier. The opening horn phrase was completely faithful to Brahms’ marking in the score. Trpčeski entered with the rising figure phrased to mimic that horn call, careful pedalling to ensure Brahms’ articulations were fully executed. This wasn’t going to be a performance of romanticised haze but one of classical precision. The briskly taken Allegro non troppo certainly edged towards Allegro. For the recapitulation there was a change of tone – a warm, almost yearning, searching for the sonority of late Brahms.

Simon Trpčeski © Benjamin Ealovega
Simon Trpčeski
© Benjamin Ealovega

The Scherzo, from both soloist and orchestra, was played with an almost aggressive streak. There appeared to be a lack of consistency in the way some of the motivic detail was treated, missing an antiphonal quality. Trpčeski brought out lovely left-hand details on occasions. On the return of the Scherzo, there was a far more convincing sense of the musical argument within the orchestra.

The third movement had a transient character. The opening cello melody was played with youthful optimism, after which colours changed like spring into summer and eventually autumn. Trpčeski played with moments of heartbreaking emotion and the return of the cello solo was tinged with sadness and tenderness. Jollity spoke loud and clear in the final movement. There were some carefully phrased ideas which were passed from piano to orchestra. Trpčeski's crystal clear staccato sometimes sounded brittle. An increase in the tempo towards the end added to the sense of fun in this considered interpretation.

Trpčeski was engaged throughout and played with assurance. His love of this music came across and without doubt. A substantial encore, the third movement Andante from Brahms’ Third Piano Quartet played with the string section leaders followed. This allowed us once again to appreciate Trpčeski’s beautiful tone and showed him to be a fine accompanist and chamber musician. There wasn’t a murmur from the mesmerised audience.

Describing the work as a “confession of the soul” by the composer, Sibelius’ Symphony no. 2 in D major is a full of extremes of emotion, which Bebeşelea clearly understood. The first movement was more vibrant than many readings, its brisk pacing making it sound slightly hurried. Bebeşelea was consistently clear in his direction and the highly articulate playing featured prominent brass and woodwind lines. The second movement was perhaps one of the darkest renditions I’ve encountered. Although acknowledged as being based around Don Juan, the poetry of Walt Whitman came to mind, such as On the Beach at Night Alone, as what appeared was a moody and atmospheric nightscape. The range of expression here was remarkable as each phrase was shaped like raising and crashing waves, each one different and unpredictable. Whether or not it was Bebeşelea’s intention to create such a picture in the mind’s eye, it was musically captivating and emotionally driven with effective rubato.

A sense of anxiety prevailed through the third movement, there were moments of respite amongst the manic mood, string playing here was highly articulate with some very fine and balanced woodwind playing. Seamlessly moving into the final movement, which was broadly paced, measured and almost hypnotic, the excitement built slowly as if one was in awe of something transcendent.

The Ulster Orchestra’s playing was first rate and the players followed Bebeşelea’s every direction. The sound of the strings was very bright. Whether that was palatable for a full evening is down to personal taste. A lot of brass and woodwind detail was brought too much to the fore on occasions, especially in the Sibeius, whether this was always musically necessary was arguable. What Bebeşelea has done is made me re-examine overly familiar repertoire and listen with fresh ears and renewed interest, which is no bad thing.

***11