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

Creative spirits in Leeds: Orchestra of Opera North’s Mahler 8

By Richard Ely, 05 June 2016

Opera North seems to be in a critical state of grace at the moment. Riding high on the success of its Ring, the company’s profile has been transformed during Richard Farnes’ ten years at its helm. More specifically, its orchestra is being seriously cited as Britain’s finest working band, a claim which may well be vindicated when they bring their Wagner epic to the capital at the end of the month. This orchestra’s greatness lies in its genuine sense of teamwork and the willingness of its sections to listen and respond to each other. Comparisons with the Vienna Staatsoper Orchester may draw metropolitan sneers but anyone who has heard this orchestra in the concert hall – where it keeps to a very busy schedule, quite apart from its operatic activities – will not sniff.

Mahler’s quasi-operatic Eighth Symphony was a suitable work to bring its current concert season to an end. Its “Symphony of a Thousand” nickname points to its notoriety as an almighty guzzler of musical resources. Indeed, the orchestra can seem like an overshadowed and vulnerable element in the great wash of sound created by double chorus, children’s choir, eight soloists and an organ. The work itself occupies a disputed position in the symphonic repertoire. Is it more of a cantata, or mini-opera, based on the final scene of Goethe’s Faust, with a prelude, based on a Latin hymn, tacked on to the beginning?

Amongst musicians, its quality is similarly disputed, with some maintaining that all its sound and fury signifies, if not nothing, then considerably less than Mahler would have had us believe. I’ll admit that in the wrong hands  it can come across as windily rhetorical, with the relentless climaxes – particularly the opening Veni creator spiritus section – becoming wearyingly intense. Fortunately, this was not the case in this performance under conductor David Hill.

The forces, which almost overcrowded the platform at Leeds Town Hall, launched into the opening section with an appropriate sense of abandon. The co-ordination of the Leeds Philharmonic Chorus under Chorus Master Richard Wilberforce, the Leeds Festival Chorus under Simon Wright and the Bradford Catholic Youth Choir, under Musical Director Thomas Leech, together with Hill, was something to marvel at and the Hymn, requesting inspiration from the Deity, had a force that was sustained throughout its near half-hour length. Unfortunately it was also in this part that some problems became evident: in a work with such a wide dynamic range it will never be easy – or even possible – to secure an ideal balance between solo voices and chorus/orchestra. Katherine Broderick’s soprano frequently overwhelmed the other female singers in a way that called attention to this; and it was difficult to hear the three male soloists at all. Admittedly, the nature of the work and its status as a rarely performed crowd-puller (the Town Hall was gratifyingly full) means it tends to be given in large public spaces, with less than ideal acoustics.

The second section begins with a testing Adagio, in which the orchestra depicts a rocky woodland landscape with the Chorus impersonating a group of anchorites clambering towards their sanctuary. The challenge here, which few conductors meet (or even seem aware of), is to create an appropriate sense of stress and endurance and not succumb to the temptation to make the music warm and syrupy, a misreading of the composer’s intentions. Hill, his orchestra and the combined choruses achieved this with an impressive rigour: if you closed your eyes, it was easy to imagine yourself there, in the ravine, with the monks.

Andrew Foster-Williams, as Pater Ecstaticus, delivered his Ewiger Wonnebrand solo in a fine, if not especially powerful, baritone but I could have done with more power and commitment from bass-baritone Michael Druiett, whose account of Pater Profundus’ longer solo was somewhat leaden and effortful; and Peter Wedd, in the Heldentenor role of Doctor Marianus, was frequently inaudible. More importantly though, Hill and his forces were scrupulous in keeping the ‘narrative’ of Goethe’s text moving and there were no moments of indulgence, lingering over detail, or times when the performance seemed to hang fire. The fast speeds chosen certainly helped (the performance finished ten minutes earlier than advertised) and the conclusion, with the magnificent tutti reprise of the Veni theme had exactly the uplifiting impact one hoped for.

Despite the mentioned flaws in balance, another notable achievement for this over-achieving opera orchestra, I think it needs to call itself something less modest!

Richard Ely BachTrack

Mahler: Symphony No 8 (Symphony of a Thousand) – Town Hall, Leeds

Posted by: The Reviews Hub – 4 June 2016

Conductor: David Hill

Choirs: Leeds Festival Chorus, Leeds Philharmonic Chorus, Bradford Catholic Youth Choir

Soloists: Lee Bisset, Katherine Broderick, Paula Sides, Sarah Castle, Madeleine Shaw, Peter Wedd, Michael Druiett, Andrew Foster-Williams

Reviewer: Ron Simpson

The 2015-2016 Leeds International Orchestral Season climaxed memorably with Mahler’s Symphony No. 8. The clue to the rarity of performances of this symphony comes in the subtitle, Symphony of a Thousand, mathematically inaccurate, but true as an evocation of this vast work. The Town Hall performance involved three choirs and over 100 musicians, plus the specified eight solo singers.

Opera North’s spell-binding performances of Wagner’s Ring Cycle left the Town Hall with a stage extension and the orchestra with a taste for the monumental, plus some clear-cut choices of soloists for the programmers: most had sung in the Ring Cycle at this venue the previous week and had a week off from Wagner before the Ring’s progress to Nottingham.

Mahler’s Eighth Symphony is not really a symphony, despite the hints of sonata form in the first movement and scholars’ ability to discern the progress of the second movement through adagio and scherzo to the finale. It is a massive choral work that initially sets the old Catholic hymn, Veni Creator Spiritus in the first movement of explosive power and dense polyphony, with a glorious double fugue that ecstatically unites soloists, choirs and orchestra – superbly delivered by the Leeds forces under David Hill.

Part Two is based on the metaphysical final scene of Goethe’s Faust which stresses the redemptive powers of love and faith, a musical contrast in the restrained orchestral colours of the opening. However, after the 30-minute Part 1, the Leeds organisers inserted an interval, losing the contrast and sense of unity. Surely an 85-minute work doesn’t need an interval.

David Hill ultimately built to a triumphal orchestral climax, but Part 2 would almost certainly have benefited from continuity and contrast. Where Part 1 unites soloists, choirs and orchestra in one breath-taking whole, Part 2 tends towards individual solos in a series of symbolic or biblical roles, from a great sinner to the Queen of Heaven, Mater Gloriosa, while the chorus supplies angels, penitents and blessed boys, the accompaniment much more restrained, frequently gentle, even serene.

Despite that unfortunate interval, this was a major achievement. In a very capable roster of soloists Michael Druiett, Lee Bisset and Katherine Broderick stood out like the Wotan, Sieglinde and Brunnhilde they are and Paula Sides deputised nobly for the indisposed Kate Valentine. The Orchestra of Opera North was as responsive as ever and particularly relished the slow build of the final redemptive pages. And, best of all, David Hill fully justified his reputation as a fine choral conductor by obtaining immaculate singing from the Leeds Festival Chorus, the Leeds Philharmonic Chorus and the Bradford Catholic Youth Choir.

Ron Simpson The Reviews Hub

Leeds Philharmonic chorus
St Anne’s Cathedral, Leeds
20th February 2016

Composer – Rachmaninov

Conductor – Richard Wilberforce

Feedback from the audience:-

From Alan and Elisabeth Horsey:
Please would you convey our thanks to the Leeds Philharmonic Choir for their wonderful singing of Rachmaninov’s marvellous All Night Liturgy at St .Anne’s Cathedral this evening. Phrasing, dynamic contrast, ensemble, balance all combined to achieve a performance of real commitment and passion. Richard conducted with assurance and clarity throughout. Soloists Claire and Michael came through the choral texture beautifully and sang with expression and warmth. The selected movements from Britten’s cello suites, played with intimacy and brilliance by Nicholas, were absolutely spellbinding. The cathedral nave was full, and the audience sat in wrapt silence throughout. The applause at the end of the concert was enthusiastic and well-deserved. The Phil should be very proud of how well this concert went. Congratulations to each and every one of the participants With our best wishes and thanks for wonderful evening.

From Julia Baxter (A2):
I  have had 3 emails already from friends who were there and said they had never heard the Phil sing so well!

From Janet Juricka:
One more than very satisfied audience member here! Very well done everyone. Comments last night included “thrilling sound”, “wonderful concert”, “made the hairs on my neck stand up” and many more.

From Frances Ledgard (A2):
I wasn’t singing last night but I too was in the audience, and can back up everything said in your email.  In fact the choir’s singing was so beautiful it almost reduced me to tears.  The friends we brought with us were positively ecstatic. I was really proud of you all!

From Gill Jewell (A1):
Albert and I echo all the previous comments.  What an achievement – and all that standing too! The venue was just the right place in beauty and acoustic.  Well done indeed. I can’t wait to be back with you all soon.

From Simon Lindley (Trustee) via Facebook:
Well, the rehearsal was spectacular and the Minster conversation at coffee after Mass this morning was ALL about what a wonderful concert it had been. Hearty congratulations to one and all!

And finally from one of our newest members, Peter (B1), for whom last night’s concert was his first with the Phil:
For me a truly ‘gestalt’ experience – even though the constituent parts were already, of themselves, excellent (and I feel I can say this, as a new observer, not due to any individual contribution or otherwise as a new member). Thank you. What a privilege to be part of this. I think we all deserve to feel proud! Anyone else think that, after all the effort of learning the piece, we should do it again sometime soon??!!

Penny Dean Leeds Philharmonic Marketing Manager

Leeds Philharmonic chorus
Manchester Camerata
Leeds Town Hall

Composer: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Conductor: Grant Llewellyn

This concert was like a long clean drink or fulsome meal. It was nourishing and satisfying.

Splendente te, Deus is our starter, seemingly short and slightly inconsequential, but nevertheless pleasing. Bright, major key, a song of praise, the harmonic language is simple and the temperament young and optimistic. Certainly moments of melodic beauty from the soloists and the choir already asserting themselves with crisp, nicely phrased delivery, sensitizing us for what is to come – in short, our palettes are cleansed, and we are ready for food. A perfect aperitif.

Symphony No 40 does not disappoint. Already in the minor key, we have another dimension of the great Mozart, as he draws us into the pervading pathos yet lyrical sweetness of this work. It becomes evident that the conductor, Grant Llewellyn, is completely at home as he draws out the clarity of the orchestral lines and delicate conversations from the orchestra.

This is Mozart at his height of maturity, but the third movement on this occasion, Allegretto/Minuetto and Trio, was particularly exquisite in its one-in-a-bar elegant tempo, harmonic shifts and orchestral colour.  Manchester Camerata is glowing in their responsiveness to this wonderful work.

And so we come to The Requiem. Words cannot describe the intensity and gravity of the Introit – especially as it leads into the Kyrie which ends on the somehow eternal quality of the last chord that is an open-fifth and glorious.

This was the last part that was fully composed and scored by Mozart before his death, and though there were clear sketches that guided its completion, it’s interesting that Sussmayer felt compelled to come back to the Kyrie music and the open chord to complete the work. It may be a romantic notion but, just like The Tempest for Shakespeare, there seems an awesomeness to the final creative moment when we have witnessed genius.

There are four very accomplished soloists. Very well balanced in that none of them are lightweight; from Stephan Loges’ dark and rich bass sound to the dramatic and bright tenor of John Daszak and the beautifully rich and well-phrased delivery of the mezzo-soprano in Catherine Wyn-Rogers to the powerful and rounded soprano tones of Rebecca Evans. All the soloists are able to take us to the depth and power of this work, yet with subtlety and sensitivity that is so characteristic of this final work.

The final word on this occasion, however, must go to Leeds Philharmonic Choir. Slightly low in numbers, especially in the men on this occasion, they are nevertheless, yet again, on tremendous form. They are powerful and sonorous in the moments of concerted delivery as well as precise and well phrased in the more exposed sections.

Their chorus master, Richard Wilberforce, has done such an excellent work with this choir in a relatively short time, and it beholds those that can sing in Leeds to expand its numbers and enjoy top class musicianship. They provide a good meal.

Reviewed on 21 November 2015

Reviewer: David Gann

David Gann The Reviews Hub - Yorkshire & North East

Leeds Philharmonic Chorus
Manchester Camerata
Leeds Town Hall

21 November 2015 

Mozart’s Requiem Mass was incomplete at the time of his death in 1791. This sublime work is one of the miracles of classical music. Several composers, but mainly Franz Xavier Sussmayer, completed the Requiem in the years following Mozart’s death.

The miracle is that whichever version we listen to, the structure and instrumentation sounds as though by Mozart’s hand. Last Saturday’s translucent performance given by Leeds Philharmonic Chorus with Manchester Camerata, conducted by Grant Llewellyn, and the Town Hall organ played by Simon Lindley was a further reminder of the divine spiritual quality of this wonderful music. The Choral singing was incandescent, the instrumental detail bathed in light. A superlative solo quartet comprising Rebecca Evans, Catherine Wyn-Rogers, John Daszak and Stephan Loges enriched the operatic lines of Mozart’s vocal writing.

Earlier, the dramatic Motet No 1, Splendente Te Deus, for soloists, chorus, orchestra and organ demonstrated the greatness of the youthful Mozart’s evolving style. The pellucid quality of Grant Llewellyn and Manchester Camerata’s performance of Symphony No 40 in G minor probed the deeply personal character of this late masterpiece.

Geoffrey Mogridge Ilkley Gazette and Wharfedale & Aireborough Observer

Walton, Belshazzar’s Feast

Leeds Philharmonic Chorus

Leeds Festival Chorus

BBC Philharmonic Orchestra

Leeds Town Hall

30 May 2015

Virtuoso finale to outstanding concert season

Premiered in the Town Hall eighty-four years ago, Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast received a superb performance from the Leeds Philharmonic and Festival Choruses as the conclusion to an outstanding concert season.

In a venue that is usually the graveyard of clear diction, every word was so immaculately clear, and, at that “death or glory” moment, the shouted word, “slain”, can surely never have been so electrifying.

Much praise to the conductor, Simon Wright, who kept the work moving with urgency, persuading the BBC Philharmonic to take it to white heat, though without ever sounding rushed, while the Leeds male sections were uncommonly robust in today’s choral world.

The voice of the baritone soloist, David Wilson-Johnson, was rather too easily lost when the chorus was singing, but was persuasive in acting out his chilling role.

The evening had already reached a high point with Peter Donohoe as the scintillating soloist in Ravel’s Piano Concerto.  It would have been worth the price of a ticket just to hear him fool our ears by persuading us that the piano is capable of a glissando in the first movement, his playing so astonishingly detailed and precise in the filigree-textured finger work, his musicianship of the highest order.

A very good accompaniment from the BBC orchestra, who were then to strut their solo and combined brilliance in a virtuoso account of Ravel’s Bolero.

David Denton

Yorkshire Evening Post

5 June 2015

 

David Denton Yorkshire Evening Post

Bachtrack review of the BBC Philharmonic, Leeds Festival Chorus and Leeds Philharmonic Chorus at Leeds Town Hall on 30 May 2015.

That the BBC Philharmonic opened their concert evening in Leeds with a curtain lifter such as the overture to Hector Berlioz’ opera Benvenuto Cellini (1834–37) was fitting in light of the spectacle that was to take place later. Simon Wright, musical director of Leeds Festival Choir, skillfully led the orchestra through this dramatic piece that features all the theatrical gestures expected from and cherished in an opera.

With its thrilling yet delightful character the second piece on the programme, Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major, tied in excellently with Berlioz’ enchanting tone. In the role of the soloist, Peter Donohoe, highly appreciated in the UK and beyond, took the place of the Swiss-Chinese young talent Louis Schwizgebel who had to cancel due to an injury. After the opening where the pianist accompanied the solo piccolo in a Liszt-like manner with high and fast arpeggios, a rhythmically vigorous, jazz-inspired soundscape developed. It was contrasted with the lyrical and dreamy, almost spherical tone Ravel is famous for, not unlike the one in his suite Ma mère l’Oye (which was performed in Leeds only last month by the Orchestra of Opera North).

Donohoe always set the right tone, sometimes – most befittingly – with a wink. Although created at the same time, the G major Concerto is less severe than the Concerto in D major (for the left hand). It was originally conceived by Ravel as a divertissement, i.e. a piece of light, entertaining music. After a wonderfully played cadenza, the buoyant rhythms concluded this high-speed-movement, the challenges of which were not always met by the orchestra as thoroughly as possible.

The second movement is inspired by the Larghetto from Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet and an atmosphere of Mozartian delicacy, simplicity and beauty prevailed, convincingly communicated by Donohoe. Changing between impressionistic and jazz sounds, and with “false notes” dispersed in a classical tonal context, the finale revealed itself as an imposing document of the early 1930s that continues to fascinate today’s audiences. After making a jolly remark about the Wars of the Roses – with the orchestra, conductor and soloist all hailing from Lancashire – Donohoe sat down at the piano together with Wright and, as an encore, they performed the last piece from the piano version of Ma mère l’Oye.

Ravel’s most popular work, the Bolero from 1928, followed immediately – a piece about which the composer once noted that it was “no music” at all. What he meant was that there is no thematic development or harmonic modulation in a classical sense, but “only” – and this is his masterstroke – changes in secondary musical parameters like orchestration, timbre and dynamics. As is known, the work consists of a simple varied melody and an ostinato rhythm which was played quite loudly from the start so that the unfolding crescendo was not as grand as it has been heard before. Still, after this rigorous and ecstatic music, the audience in a packed Town Hall was thrilled.

The unusual dramaturgy of playing three pieces before the interval was due to the weight of William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast that took up the second half of the evening. It was definitely the highlight of the concert, not only in terms of quantity – one large orchestra, two choirs, two brass bands (situated behind the choirs) and a baritone – but first and foremost in respect of Walton’s great music that was performed by the BBC Philharmonic, the Leeds Festival and the Leeds Philharmonic Choir with a compelling enthusiasm. Could it be that the musicians felt a special attachment to the cantata since it was premiered on 8 October 1931 in this very Town Hall by the Leeds Festival Choir?

The underlying story of the work is known from the Bible. While the Jews endure their exile in Babylon, King Belshazzar hosts a great feast during which he drinks from the Jews’ holy vessels to his God of Gold. This sacrilege is followed by the mysterious death of the Babylonian king. Walton depicted the sorrows of the captives as well as the decadence of Babylonian society with a tremendous musical vividness. As the narrator, baritone David Wilson-Johnson delivered a performance to remember. His recitatives were of an utmost intensity, charismatic and gripping alike. When the king was slain and the Jews were freed, the two choirs and the orchestra united in a final grandiose apotheosis that outshone the musical climax of the Bolero by far.

Julia Zupancic Bachtrack

BBC Philharmonic, Leeds Philharmonic & Leeds Festival Chorus – Town Hall, Leeds
Conductor: Simon Wright

Piano: Peter Donohoe

Baritone: David Wilson-Johnson

30th May 2015

As the ‘finale’ concert to the wonderful Leeds International Orchestral Season, there is a sense of celebration and flourish.

As the conductor and the eminent Peter Donohoe, after a sumptuous performance of Ravel’s Piano Concerto, sit down together to play the original piano duet version of Ravel’s Ma Mere L’Oye, there is a feeling of friends enjoying a party piece. All the more so as Simon Wright has become a long standing and much loved local musician, and who conducts the whole proceedings with flair and competency.

The two choirs have had a resoundingly good season. The power, precision, and panache with which they delivered the much loved Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast was a sheer delight. The choirs seem to be on as good a form as ever, enjoying their singing and music making. Join one if you can sing!

Berlioz Benvenuto Cellini, as an opener, uses the large orchestral forces with aplomb, and gives a suitably popular flourish to set the tone.

But as we settle into the jazz idioms of the Ravel Piano Concerto in G, we are in a completely different idiom. The piano glissandi, the delicate and beautifully judged orchestration seemingly gliding us across the 1930’s dance-floor, the humour of the brass ‘portamenti’, and the achingly enjoyable harmonic dissonances that evoke the ‘blues’ sets the audience in a place of relaxation and smiles.

As if to say, ‘we know you’ve heard it before, but it’s worth it’ – next up is Ravel’s ‘Bolero’. The tour-de-force of the side-drum, the simplicity of the repeated but beautiful melodic curve, and the mastery of how the orchestra builds a single crescendo over the fifteen minutes or so; the piece is formulated on Spanish flamenco that has the ‘duende’ climax as its core ingredient, and never fails to delight.

A final word about Belshazzar’s Feast. It is eminently dramatic as it explores the demise of a Babylonian people intent on mocking the Hebrews and defiantly worshipping their own idolatrous ‘gods’. The terrifying intervention of God Jehovah and the ensuing overthrow of Belshazzar and his kingdom is magnificently evoked in Walton’s music with both orchestral and vocal power.

David Wilson-Johnson though retired from the opera-house is still a master of the concert hall, especially in the dramatic way that he can change the tone of his voice and punctuate the text.

The rhythmic, percussive and exultant shouts of victory that conclude the piece ring in the ears of the concert goers as they make their final exit – and they keenly anticipate next October.

David Gann www.thepublicreviews.com

Beethoven Symphony no 9 (Choral)

9th May 2015

Leeds Town Hall

 

Choruses are a credit to city

John Sutcliffe, Leeds

 

May I, through the pages of the YEP, express my thanks and appreciation to both the Leeds Philharmonic Chorus and the Leeds Festival Chorus for their outstanding performance at the Leeds Town Hall last Saturday night.

Along with the Warsaw Philharmonic Orchestra their performance at the Beethoven symphony no 9 (Choral) was out of this world, it richly deserved the prolonged applause it received.

Well done, a credit to the city.

Letter to YEP, 15/5/15

 

John Sutcliffe Letters to Yorkshire Evening Press