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Leeds Philharmonic Chorus and Orchestra of Opera North, at Leeds Town Hall, Saturday, November 25 2017

MALCOLM Arnold’s Peterloo Overture sounds more like the incidental music for a docu-drama, but is no less compelling for that. The composer’s portrayal of the events surrounding the ‘Peterloo Massacre’ at St Peter’s Fields, Manchester, in August 1819, was played with a degree of swagger by the Orchestra of Opera North conducted by David Hill. Verses recently added by Sir Tim Rice to the stirring patriotic melody running through the piece were projected with ringing clarity by Leeds Philharmonic Chorus, St Peter’s Singers and Leeds College of Music Student Chorus.

Following an extensive rearrangement, the stage was set for Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a theme of Thomas Tallis. The Fantasia’s intense, brooding character was wonderfully realised by the plush Opera North strings.

Sir Edward Elgar’s twenty minutes-long Concert Overture In the South (Alassio) was inspired by ‘the thoughts and sensations of one beautiful afternoon in the Vale of Andora’. Elgar’s writing for legato strings and woodwind contrasts with exuberant brass fanfares and adds tremendous excitement. The magical episode known as In Moonlight evokes a shepherd softly singing, represented by Rebecca Chambers’ achingly beautiful solo viola.

Herbert Howells’ Hymnus Paradisi was composed in memory of his nine year-old son, Michael, whose death in 1935 from spinal meningitis had been a devastating blow. Howells himself conducted the premiere at the 1950 Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester Cathedral.

The composer would surely have been delighted with David Hill’s luminous performance of his choral masterpiece. Dr Hill captured the mystical nature of this deeply personal work. Dense choral and orchestral textures were clear and well balanced. The sinewy choral line sounded so natural and the attack and brightness of tone in the Sanctus was arresting. Howells listed the organ part as ‘optional’, but it is difficult to imagine a performance of Hymnus Paradisi without the ‘King of instruments’. This is especially so in the second movement: Dr Simon Lindley at the console of the mighty Town Hall organ pierces the dark textures with a glorious blaze of light.

Sarah Fox sings the demanding solo soprano part. She has the power to soar ecstatically over the big climaxes. Tenor Ben Hulett’s plangent tone was heart rending in the movement: I heard a Voice from Heaven.

An insightful performance of one of the greatest English choral works. Sadly these days, Hymnus Paradisi is also one of the least performed.

Geoffrey Mogridge
Wharfedale Observer
7 December 2017

Geoffrey Mogridge Wharfedale Observor