The Damnation of Faust

Leeds Town Hall, 12 May 2018

For their annual joint presentation, the Leeds Festival and Philharmonic Choruses had made the brave decision to perform Berlioz’s operatic oratorio, Le damnation de Faust, a work that in recent times has slipped from the concert repertoire.

It’s a story of Faust falling in love with Marguerite, who has been brought into his life by Mephistopheles, she then inadvertently kills her mother with sleeping draughts given while illicitly meeting Faust, for which she is then condemned to death.

In the name role the young British tenor, David Butt Philip, was outstanding, the part often moving into the realms of a heldontenor, his top notes ringing with enviable power, as he falls victim to the devil.

Maybe we have grown more used to a sinister Mephistopheles than the likable voice of David Soar can create, but in Rachael Kelly’s Marguerite we discovered a soprano of immense potential, her perfectly focused lyric voice projected so easily.

To describe the performance of the conductor, Simon Wright, as expansive would be an understatement, but he secured very resolute and powerful choral singing joined at the heavenly conclusion by the children’s choirs of Opera North.

I guess with one more rehearsal, the Opera North Orchestra would have been on peak form, but the string intonation was edgy, and maybe financial constraints left the lower string woefully short of numbers and weight.

David Denton

Yorkshire Post, 18 May 2018

David Denton Yorkshire Post

Review: The Damnation of Faust, Leeds Town Hall, Saturday, May 12, 2018

Berlioz’ description of his vast ‘Dramatic Legend’ based on Faust’s pact with the devil (Mephistopheles) as ‘an opera without decor or costume’ is curiously apt when taken in the context of his works specifically written for the opera house.

This revolutionary composer never surpassed the kaleidoscopic colours or the fluidity of atmosphere from sardonic to terrifyingly satanic so brilliantly depicted in the Damnation of Faust. That is probably why fully staged productions of the piece – at least those that I have experienced – seemed totally superfluous. And they failed to ignite the frisson of excitement engendered in Leeds Town Hall with tiers of choristers rising up to the organ pipes above layers of percussion, heavy brass, woodwind, harps and strings.

Costumes and decor were definitely not needed at last Saturday’s thrilling performance. The narrative of Faust’s journey from the Plains of Hungary with the sounds of an advancing army – the famously brassy Hungarian March – Auerbach’s Drinking Cellar in Leipzig, the love affair with Marguerite and the hair raising Ride to the Abyss was revealed in illuminating detail. Simon Wright at the helm of the Orchestra of Opera North, Leeds Festival Chorus, Leeds Philharmonic Chorus and St Peter’s Singers demonstrated absolute mastery of atmosphere and structure. The four excellent soloists inhabited their characters – especially bass-baritone David Soar’s insinuating and deceptively charming Mephistopheles. Rising star David Butt Philip’s heroic ringing tenor eloquently conveyed the scholarly but gullible Faust. Mezzo soprano Rachel Kelly’s vulnerable Marguerite was ravishing in her Romance: D’amour l’ardent flamme (the burning flame of love) decorated by a plangent solo cor anglais. The bass Ashley Riches lightened the mood with his animated performance of Brander’s boisterous Song of the Rat.

Whether portraying bawdy peasants, lively students or soldiers, the Choirs had the measure of the complex rhythms and the French text. The choral sound – including a blood curling scream from the sopranos and altos – was frighteningly demonic in the pandemonium scene. It might have proved more spatially effective, however, to separate the Opera North Young Voices and Children’s Chorus as celestial spirits in the final poignant scene, from the main Chorus.

Geoffrey Mogridge

15th May 2018

Geoffrey Mogridge Wharfdale Observer and Telegraph & Argus

The Damnation of Faust – Leeds Town Hall

Composer: Hector Berlioz

Conductor: Simon Wright

Opera North is reputed for their variety of operas and other works which are hosted season after season.  Their orchestra and choirs, however, are a success in their own right and are regular features in the Leeds International Concert Seasons.  On this occasion Orchestra of Opera North plays Hector Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust which features four choirs, Leeds Festival Chorus, Leeds Philharmonic Chorus, Opera North Young Voices and Opera North Children’s Chorus.

Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust is based on Goethe’s Faust.  Faust is a tragic play about a deep thinking scholar (David Butt Philip) who feels unfulfilled with his life; he sells his soul and makes a pact with the devil, Mephistopheles, in order to gain unlimited knowledge and ultimate pleasure.  He falls in love with a local girl, Marguerite (Rachel Kelly) and the charismatic Mephistopheles (David Soar) plans to let hell loose in society and his disguise dressed as a gentleman is deceptive.

Goethe’s Faust is considered a legend and there are numerous literary and musical interpretations including Berlioz’s musical composition.  His dramatic legend is specifically for solo artists, orchestra and numerous choruses including children’s ones.   This retelling of the story is usually performed at concert halls and it is no different to the Victorian Leeds Town Hall where the city concerts are regularly held.

This performance is sung in French throughout which is led by the four soloists including Ashley Riches (Brander) and they are backed with harmonious choruses who are perched high up in the choral stands behind the orchestra.  The beautiful heartfelt arias, especially in final part, Kelly sings as Marguerite are memorable and also other arias, duets and choruses.

A wide range of musical instruments that forms the large orchestra are played throughout and represents the story’s complexities and emotions.  What stands out is the dramatic crescendo, emphasised with a combination of vocals, brass and percussion, when Faust meets his hellish fate. Berlioz’s score is delightful, melancholy and dramatic emphasising the characters journeys’ extremities Faust and Mephistopheles travel on.  It is hypnotic and yet at the same time it tells an important story.

This “part opera, part cantata” production is delivered well under the excellent direction of Simon Wright and his musical co-ordination is ought to be admired.  It is a good opportunity to see this production being fully staged with a showcase of voices in spirit of Berlioz’s composition.

Dawn Smallwood

Reviewed on 12 May 2018

Dawn Smallwood www.thereviewshub.com

Bruckner Orchestra Linz & Markus Poschner, Usher Hall, Edinburgh

With a piece as epic and emotionally overwhelming as Mahler’s Second Symphony, everyone has their own expectations as to how it should go. That was clear from the huge audience for the Bruckner Orchestra Linz’s performance – and with a visiting orchestra immersed in Austrian culture, expectations were high. Bruckner Orchestra Linz & Markus Poschner, Usher Hall, Edinburgh. And indeed, there were a lot of extremely good things about conductor Markus Poschner’s performance of the massive work. His two soloists – soprano Brigitte Geller and mezzo Theresa Kronthaler – were fine, focused and ravishingly sculpted in their unfolding lines, and his huge choir, from the Leeds and Sheffield Philharmonic Choruses, was on strong form too. His orchestra played with grit and vigour, attacking Mahler’s turbulent opening with determination, and building up momentum at the brisk speeds Poschner adopted. His ingratiating slow movement, too, was deliciously flecked with cheeky portamento. And yet there were strange, unconvincing aspects to the performance.

Poschner’s orchestral musicians were gloriously soloistic, to the point of occasional disagreements over ensemble between sections. And while the conductor was effective at conjuring Mahler’s shifting moods, the result sometimes felt like a patchwork of sharply defined but separate episodes. Overall, it felt a little too polite to fully convey Mahler’s screaming desperation or ecstatic visions of the beyond. The crashing gongs and chiming bells of Poschner’s transcendent conclusion were certainly stirring, but it was missing the raw intensity that can make the piece such a life-changing experience.

David Kettle

5 May 2018

David Kettle The Scotsman

Bruckner Orchester Linz, Usher Hall, Edinburgh, four stars

30th April 2018

Having recently taken up the post as Chief Conductor, Markus Poschner directed the Bruckner Orchester Linz in an invigorating performance of Mahler’s sensational second symphony, Resurrection, at the Usher Hall on Sunday afternoon. Opening with a rustic, golden hued timbre, the orchestra gave an animated interpretation of the work. Though some of the music’s finer details may have been slightly muddied, the warmth of tone and spirited playing was perfectly fitting for the piece.

Poschner was calm and collected on the podium, and the passionate surges the orchestra produced belied his cool demeanour. Ramping up the tempo with a sure, steady beat, the accelerando towards the middle of the first movement was wild and exciting, before the movement concluded with a frenzied descending cascade of strings.

Mahler employs a lot of interesting instrumental techniques in this symphony. Strings were played col legno, the players hitting the instruments with the back of their bow to sound like galloping horses, to being turned on their sides and plucked like guitars, and a quartet of off-stage horns pealed out from a distance, before joining their section for the triumphant finale. The massive number of timpani on stage was put to good use too, with thundering, rousing rolls.

Filling the organ gallery, the combined choruses of Leeds Philharmonic Chorus and Sheffield Philharmonic Chorus opened with a soft yet supported sound and displayed a majestic power for the final bars, Alto soloist Theresa Kronthaler sang with a gorgeous tone. Her voice is rich, rounded and deep but not at all heavy, and was a perfect match with Brigitte Geller’s honeyed soprano.

This was an uplifting performance, one which had inherent joy, and gave a profound context to Mahler’s life-affirming music.

Miranda Heggie www.heraldscotland.com

Assertive Mahler ‘Resurrection’ from Bruckner Orchester Linz

29/04/2018 Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Leeds Philharmonic Chorus

Sheffield Philharmonic Chorus

Markus Poschner (conductor),

Brigitte Geller (soprano), Theresa Kronthaler (alto)

I guess it is probably a shrewd marketing move to brand your orchestra after the name of your town’s most famous musical son, but that can sometimes lead to a mistaken view of what you do. On their UK tour, the Bruckner Orchestra of Linz are doing almost no Bruckner, but they are playing a symphony whose length compares with those of Linz’s famous kapellmeister, and whose scale in terms of forces required exceeds it.

Mahler’s music is more popular than ever at present. The RSNO, for example, are about to embark on a complete Mahler cycle, and the audience for this concert was markedly busy when you compare it with most of the rest of the Usher Hall’s Sunday Classics season. But then, Mahler’s ‘Resurrection’ Symphony is one of those works that feels like a special occasion every time you hear it. How many other works deploy so many forces, and keep a huge chorus in tow to sing for only the final ten minutes? Even considering that, this was one of those particularly special occasions, a time where the playing and the sense of occasion coalesced to produce something extremely memorable.

I guess a lot of that springs from the sense of class exuded by the orchestra. It must be tough being an Austrian orchestra outside of Vienna: if you are not part of the capital’s unique musical heritage, then many international concertgoers just do not want to know. Why have cotton when you can have silk? Make no mistake, though: on the basis of today’s concert they are a class act. For one thing, they are steeped in the Austro-German tradition every bit as much as their Viennese comrades. They play on Vienna-made brass instruments for one thing, producing a more piercing brass sound that cuts through the climaxes with more clarity than most. For another, the orchestra as a whole seems to have the Mahlerian style running through their veins. The strings, for example, have that distinctive mitteleuropäische gloss to their sound that gives them an astonishing sheen, and they would occasionally throw in a cheeky portamento that showed they weren’t afraid to add their own take, something perfect for the folksy gemütlichkeit of the Ländler.

Their sound as a whole was remarkably assertive, notably so when you compare them with most of the British orchestras I have heard playing Mahler. The opening shudder for example receded like a troubled sforzando almost as soon as it began, and the bite of the cellos and basses had the edge of a stab wound. It made for a remarkably exciting opening, something that was carried on throughout the first movement. Granted: the silky elegance that made the first two movements so arresting felt a little out of place in the Scherzo, which could have done with a greater sense of the macabre, but the climactic scream was electric, while still managing to avoid sounding crude.

They also showed great subtlety throughout, something that was helped by the sure hand of conductor Markus Poschner. He gave the music a real sense of a journey and, more to the point, this was a voyage where he knew what the final destination was going to be right from the outset. There were a few odd touches, such as a rather schmaltzy slowing up before the appearance of the major-key theme of the first movement, and a too-willfully extended pause after the first movement. On the whole, though, I really liked the way Poschner grasped the music’s scale, and this came into its own in the vast span of the finale, which sounded as though it had been built up with painstaking attention to detail. Each block was carefully enunciated as it appeared – such as the winds’ first announcement of what would become the mezzo’s ‘O glaube’ theme – and then built together into a solid musical edifice. The trombones’ chorale theme, too, made the hairs on the back of my neck prickle, and those infinite drum rolls sounded like the end of the world; the second, for once, sounding every bit as thrilling as the first.

Poschner also embraced the quiet moments every bit as much as the loud ones. Several times, for example, he would go from fff to ppp while embracing both extremes, and at the end of the (beautifully articulated) Urlicht he held on to every last second of the dying string sound before unleashing the waiting mayhem of the finale.

The orchestra were helped by the combined forces of the Leeds and Sheffield Philharmonic Choruses, who did a great job, creating a big, soft and pleasingly accurate sound for their first entrance, building up to a blazing peroration in the final minutes. Only at ‘Bereite dich’ was there a slight hint of barking but, when you consider how late they must have been inserted into the jigsaw puzzle, they did extremely well. So did alto Theresa Kronthaler, who sang an ‘Urlicht’ of prelapsarian innocenceand Brigitte Geller’s more knowing soprano, who not only blended beautifully with Kronthaler but also kept the chorus right during their first entrances.

All told, then, it was a pretty special performance, a glimpse of the Central European musical tradition doing what it does well, combining with a full-throated British choral sound that was very pleasing. The orchestra now take this symphony on tour to Middlesbrough, London, Reading and Sheffield, finishing with a different programme in Birmingham. They are well worth catching if you get the chance.

Simon Thompson

Simon Thompson seenandheard-international.com

Any fool who doubts good music is being made outside the M25 needs to hear the Leeds Philharmonic

 

There is a tendency among those in the Home Counties to imagine that music-making outside the London area is in some way inferior.

What rot. The BBC, notably, maintains first-class orchestras in Cardiff, Edinburgh and Manchester. Sir Mark Elder’s tenure of the Halle, also in Manchester, has been remarkable, having ensured not just memorable performances but a legacy of highly acclaimed recordings. There is also a thriving musical life of international quality in Liverpool, at the Philharmonic Hall, and in Birmingham’s Symphony Hall, where conductors such as Sir Simon Rattle and Sakari Oramo have achieved a great deal in recent decades.

One thing these concert halls outside London share is a dedication to British music. Elder has led the way with his Elgar recordings, Oramo reintroduced the magnificent John Foulds to British audiences after an absence of 70 years, and Andrew Manze has embarked upon a superlative Vaughan Williams cycle in Liverpool. But one must not overlook Leeds – home of Opera North – and the achievement of David Hill there in his decade as music director of the Leeds Philharmonic Chorus. Last month, I heard the brilliance of the Chorus – teamed with the Orchestra of Opera North, and reinforced by the St Peter’s Singers and the Leeds College of Music Student Chorus – when it took part in a concert of 20th-century English music, under Hill’s baton.

The concert began with a rare performance of Malcolm Arnold’s 1968 Peterloo Overture, in a choral version first heard at the 2014 Proms. Even from this short work, the calibre of the singers and the orchestral players was obvious; so, too, was Hill’s deep understanding of the music. The conductor’s complete command of dynamics and tempi illuminated all four works in the concert, which also included a performance of Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Talli s , (1910), and a Technicolor account of Elgar’s overture In the South (Alassio), written in 1904 to celebrate the composer’s love of Italy.

The climax of the concert was Herbert Howells’s Hymnus Paradisi, which truly shone thanks to Hill’s sensitivity not just to the work itself, but to its commanding place in the corpus of English choral music. Hill was blessed with two fine soloists: Sarah Fox, the soprano, and Ben Hulett, the tenor. The work is especially demanding for the soprano, who has a challenge of almost Wagnerian proportions in terms of range, and has to compete with a considerable orchestra and chorus. Fox was more than equal to it, assisted by a conductor who brought the optimum combination of tension, profundity and light to his direction of the work.

Howells, recognising that not every hall has an organ, gave conductors permission in the score of Hymnus Paradisi to omit the use of the instrument if necessary. When this happens – and sometimes even cathedrals don’t bother, for reasons that escape me – it’s like someone smiling and revealing a missing tooth. Leeds Town Hall has a monumental organ, and the Leeds Philharmonic’s monumental organist – Simon Lindley – made the most of it, both underpinning and amplifying the piece whenever he played. As with other such choral societies, the Leeds Phil allows gifted amateurs to combine with professionals and make the finest music. They are fortunate to have a director as insightful and talented as Hill to lead them, and the North is lucky to have this exciting group of music makers at its heart.

Simon Heffer

The Daily Telegraph

Saturday 9 December 2017

Simon Heffer Daily Telegraph

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

Exhilarating performance of Verdi’s Requiem

Verdi’s Requiem
Leeds Town Hall
Saturday 20th May 2017

Well over 300 singers and musicians were involved in this exhilarating performance of Verdi’s Requiem given as the grand finale to the 2016-17 Leeds International Orchestral Season.
Conductor David Hill directed with an unerring sense of pace and balance the combined forces of Leeds Philharmonic Chorus, Leeds Festival Chorus and Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. Verdi’s intensely theatrical setting ranges from the exquisite, hushed opening Requiem aeternam (Rest eternal grant them) to the ferocity of the Dies irae (Day of wrath). This is some of the loudest music ever composed for church or concert hall. Verdi’s consummate instrumental and vocal writing requires the full orchestra complete with a thunderous bass drum (known as a Verdi drum) and a large chorus singing at full throttle. In the awesome Tuba mirum (wondrous sound the trumpet flingeth) the antiphonal effect of eight trumpets – four of them placed in the balcony towards the back of the auditorium – announces one of the most thrilling moments in all music. David Hill’s careful delineation of textures and the crystal clear articulation of the choirs allowed every word to cut through the orchestral tumult – a striking contrast with wonderfully light and airy choral textures in the Sanctus, and the softly intoned Libera me (Deliver me, O Lord).
The finely matched soloists included Philippa Boyle – a gleaming soprano with an unwavering higher register, and mezzo soprano Jennifer Johnston whose expressive voice has a rich contralto quality. Italianate tenor Peter Auty’s slight vocal flutter made the anguish of his Ingemisco (Guilty, now I pour my moaning) seem all the more potent. True Verdian bass David Shipley made his Mors stupebit (Death is struck) sound terrifying.
The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra’s sheen of brilliance – bathed in the great acoustic of Leeds Town Hall – underpinned an unforgettable account of Verdi’s monumental work.

Geoffrey Mogridge
Wharfedale Observer
23 May 2017

 

Geoffrey Mogridge Wharfedale Observer

Authentic baroque style for a seasonal classic

Handel’s Messiah
Leeds Town Hall
Saturday 10th December 2016

Ever since the premiere of Handel’s Messiah at the Great Music Hall in Fishamble Street, Dublin on 13th April 1742, performances of this beloved work have veered between modesty of scale and overblown grandeur.

The crispness of groundbreaking recordings conducted by Colin Davis and Charles Mackerras in the 1960s ushered in “historically informed performances” with far fewer singers and instrumentalists. Last Saturday’s performance by Leeds Philharmonic Chorus deployed a relatively large number of around ninety choristers

The International Baroque Players led by Jorge Jimenez comprised just eighteen strings, two oboes, bassoon, small timpani and two trumpets. A more authentic baroque style was achieved by using short instrument bows, gut strings and natural (baroque) trumpets instead of valved instruments. The fresh, vibrato-less sound produced by these virtuosic musicians was quite exhilarating. Alan Horsey suppled both the fluid harpsichord continuo and, for the big choruses, subtle support from the organ of Leeds Town Hall.

The choral strands were cleanly articulated; balance between choir and instrumental ensemble was consummately managed by David Hill, “the Phil’s” music director. Hill’s flexible tempi propelled the choruses along and allowed the soloists space to colour their lines. For unto us a child is born had a buoyancy befitting one of the most joyful choruses ever written. The Hallelujah Chorus, embellished by the striking sonic effect of natural trumpets, really made the eyes prick. A majestic-sounding Worthy is the Lamb culminated in the stupendous Amen chorus.

The quartet of carefully blended soloists were uniformly excellent: Soprano Ruth Jenkins-Robertsson’s articulation and purity of tone conveyed sheer joy in her recitative And lo, the Angel of the Lord came upon them. Young countertenor James Hall – expect to hear much more of him – was heart rending in his plangent account of He was despised. Tenor Andrew Tortise coloured with sorrow Thy rebuke hath broken His heart; the velvet tones of bass Philip Smith infused his lines with a sense of mystery. An appreciative audience displayed joy unconfined at the end of a remarkable concert.

Geoffrey Mogridge
Ilkley Gazette
22 Dec 2016

Geoffrey Mogridge Ilkley Gazette