Commissioned in 2008 by Mariss Jansons for the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra as a companion for Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, Jörg Widmann’s Con Brio started proceedings at Ulster Hall. Using the identical orchestration to Beethoven’s model, in many ways it seemed the obvious choice of curtain raiser for his Symphony no. 7 later in the evening. The Ulster Orchestra were electrifying in this piece and conductor Rafael Payare was at ease. This piece brimmed with assurance from the players, flawless in their execution. Watching the timpanist was endlessly fascinating as he radically changed sticks to make a range of non-conventional timpani sounds from his instruments. There was a sense of balance from the orchestra, allowing the clarity of crisp textures to glisten in this polished performance. Payare held the silences well which aided the sense of drama in this creative piece of orchestral writing.

Veronika Eberle © Felix Broede
Veronika Eberle
© Felix Broede

The star of the night was undoubtedly Veronika Eberle. This young violinist gave the most awe-inspiring performance with her eyes closed. For such a young performer, Eberle has incredible presence. Playing Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in E minor, the opening phrase was shaped with delicacy and poise, with natural rise and fall, allowing the music to breathe almost vocally. Then the turbulence started: with Mendelssohn’s marking of Allegro molto appassionato, she took the music in some very stormy and serious directions. Eberle drove the performance and towards the end, when she put her foot on the musical accelerator, Payare had to drive the orchestra to catch her. This gave a sense of spontaneous music making, something fresh, vibrant and exciting – a risk-taking performance.

The second movement was admirably played. Eberle is very much a painter in sound, with her ability to change the colour palette in a stroke of the bow. The dark winter storms and sense of foreboding of the first movement melted away in this Andante as if spring had arrived. Phrases were long and sustained, with a sense of direction. In a few years time, when the budding poetry in her playing fully blossoms, this movement will be truly exceptional. The third movement bounced away. Again she drove it completely, but with certainty of direction. Eberle’s playing was exacting and highly articulate, but never mechanical. Here she gave a masterclass in how to control a bow in this flawless rendition — her technical skill was astounding — octaves, thirds, chords all executed with ease. More than this, there was a musicality with real substance to her vision. Her tone on the “Dragonetti” Stradivarius was richly coloured in, and the controlled use of vibrato added changed hues with the highest degree of subtlety. Eberle clearly understands Mendelssohn’s bringing out in the concerto all the unique stylistic elements of his music. The orchestra in this performance took a backseat. They did, however, act as more than just mere accompanists: they were partners, but allowed her to shine. The curious Prokofiev encore that followed — the theme and variations from the Sonata for Solo Violin in D major, Op.115, was musically considered and technically assured.

Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony followed after the interval in a stylish and attractive performance. The opening, Poco Sostenuto – a little sustained – was followed to the letter. A smooth transition into the Vivace was nicely made. The movement was perhaps on the slower side, but there was a sense of momentum. Double basses playing on the C extensions towards the end of the movement, although not strictly Beethoven, added a layer of sonority to the texture in clear acoustics. As in the Mendelssohn, the orchestra used natural timpani which blended into the sound wonderfully. The violas were exceptional in the opening of the second movement, perhaps having taken a leaf out of Eberle’s book, with sensitive and highly expressive playing. The phrasing and dynamics allowed the music to develop organically, each layer of sound being savoured. Payare brought out the dance-like qualities of this quasi-Pavane. The third movement, Presto, was aptly paced, but the central section felt too slow, although this is now accepted as historically correct. The broader tempo allowed fine and string detail to shine, which is an appropriate price to pay. The Allegro con brio, bringing the concert full circle, was rousing. Woodwind and brass were balanced wonderfully. Payare relished the horn moments here: propelling the orchestra hard, he piloted this crowd-pleasing evening to a brilliant and joyful end.

****1