Prom 31: Ulster Orch/Rustioni review – ravishing and mesmerising

Daniele Rustioni made his overdue Proms debut with the Ulster Orchestra, of which he is chief conductor, in a programme of Austro-German Romantics (Wagner, Strauss, Mahler, Schumann) that took him into very different territory from the Italian operatic repertory with which he is primarily associated. The qualities that characterise his work in the theatre, however – flair, intelligence, an immaculate sense of pace, tension and drama – also very much formed the basis of an exceptional concert that found him and his orchestra on terrific form.

He began with the Overture and Venusberg music from Wagner’s Tannhäuser, the opening austere, noble and strikingly slow, the erotic frenzy that counters it startlingly orgiastic and genuinely spine-tingling. The Venusberg section is difficult to balance in the Albert Hall, where the muddy acoustic can swallow much of the detail of Wagner’s complex string writing, but the playing here was wonderful in its accuracy and immediacy.

Rustioni’s ability to tease out detail, while thinking in terms of span, was also apparent in the performance of Strauss’s Four Last Songs that followed. Speeds were on the swift side without suggesting undue urgency, but allowing soprano Louise Alder, her voice silvery rather than opulent, to let the soaring lines live and breathe with ease and sensitivity. In contrast to the wordless warbling of some interpreters, she gave us the text with admirable clarity, and Rustioni’s way with the textures, almost imperceptibly darkening as death looms, was wonderfully well judged. It was one of the most moving accounts of the work I’ve heard for a while.

There was plenty of textural subtlety in Mahler’s early Blumine, too, with the exacting, bittersweet trumpet solo ravishingly played over beautifully hushed strings. The final work was Schumann’s Fourth Symphony, energetic and rhythmically precise in its outer movements, yet tender and touching in the Romanze, where the instrumental solos, oboe and cello, were again beautifully done. Mesmerising to watch, and at times almost balletic on the podium, Rustioni danced and stamped his way through it with great glee. A marvellous evening.

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