In a concert set to become one of the highlights of the Ulster Orchestra's season, young Dutch violinist Rosanne Philippens impressed with her bold tackling of Sibelius’ concerto. The Ulster Orchestra was on flying form, with a mesmerising rendition of Ralph Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis, superbly led by Principal Guest Conductor Jac van Steen.

Rosanne Philippens
© Marco Borggreve

Steen had set out to strip the Fantasia, a firm favourite among British audiences, of baggage accrued over more than a century of overbearing, indulgent performances. Instead, he sought to evoke a somewhat leaner sound, focussing on the work’s very essence, an interpretation paying respects to both the setting of its première in Gloucester Cathedral in 1910 and, crucially, the complex yet clarion hymnal writing of the Renaissance composer. The approach worked a treat. The orchestra’s string section, divided into three groups, played with a real sense of purpose, precision and the attentiveness. Here, with the Ulster Hall’s fine acoustics proving ideal for string sounds, the players marvelled from the piece’s serene beginning.

Van Steen allows the intricate layers of Tallis’ contrapuntal choral writing to shine through, its nuanced textures uncluttered. Recreating the spatial distance between players in the nave of the original cathedral setting by placing the ensemble of nine instruments behind the main body effectively suggested the echoes of antiphonal choral composition. The swifter tempo and transparent sound brought further benefits, facilitating contrast between ensemble playing and the string quartet’s “singing”, and rendering the expansive sounds of the vertical, organ-like chords at the piece’s climax towards the end all the more thrilling.

Next on the programme was the concerto with soloist Rosanne Philippens, substituting for Esther Yoo, who had withdrawn from the concert a few days earlier due to injury. Philippens made a strong case for her fearless approach to weighty repertoire in this performance. Sibelius' concerto famously ended in disaster at its Helsinki première in 1904, as the soloist was not up to its abundant technical challenges. With the 1905 revision, it quickly developed into one of the most treasured pieces for the violin, and remains one of the most demanding also. After its reticent, enigmatic opening, the Allegro moderato unfolded into its sweeping first theme. Philippens attacked the movement’s virtuosic cadenza with great panache, her playing positively unleashed throughout the breakneck runs awash with double stops and arpeggios. The absence of any safety net distinguished her interpretation and made this a joy to hear and watch. Only on a couple of occasions did her otherwise impeccable balance of control and abandon lapse, resulting in minor imprecisions.

The breathy octave scales were suitably eerie in Philippens’ rendition and her lyrical passages were poised throughout. The darkly lit beauty of the Adagio di molto could have done with a slightly restrained tempo to allow the soloist to develop her tone further and shape the movement’s long thematic lines. In the final movement (Allegro ma non tanto) Philippens played out her affinity for fiery tempi and dance rhythms. Urging the orchestra forward, she delighted in the energetic opening theme, her bowing rendering it rather more sprightly than melancholic. Her performance, which was followed by the Gavotte en rondeau from Bach’s Partita no. 3 (maybe dance was the alternative theme of the evening!), was received with enthusiastic applause.

For the concert’s second half, the Ulster Orchestra offered a convincing delivery of Dvořák's Seventh Symphony. While the playing was perfectly adequate, the orchestra could not quite replicate the excitement and verve of the first half. Jac van Steen’s decision to take the Scherzo at a much faster tempo than has become the standard performance practice made sense in theory, but the orchestra failed to completely translate this attack into the buoyancy demanded by the movement. The counter-rhythms of the Bohemian furiant dance were insufficiently pronounced as a result. Overall, however, this was a night to remember, with the audience at the packed Ulster Hall thoroughly enjoying itself.