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In The Press

The Dream of Gerontius, Leeds Town Hall, Saturday, June 1 2019

CARDINAL John Henry Newman’s epic poem imagines the spiritual journey of Gerontius from deathbed to after-life. The text inspired Sir Edward Elgar to some of his most descriptive orchestral and vocal writing. Said Elgar at the time of the premiere at Birmingham Town Hall, on 3rd October 1900, “Gerontius is the best of me”. In 90 minutes of music, he blends the noble English choral tradition with more than a hint of the music dramas of Richard Wagner, most notably Tristan and Parsifal.

Saturday’s luminous performance showcased three great Leeds choirs. 250 choristers from the combined Leeds Festival and Philharmonic Choruses with St Peter’s Singers and the 80-strong Halle Orchestra were conducted by Simon Wright whose acute sense of pace maintained the narrative flow. This is, after all, Elgar at his most operatic and that does not apply only to his immense vocal demands on the soloists and choristers.

Wright’s skillful layering of textures achieved impeccable balance and illuminated Elgar’s vast musical canvas. The richness of orchestral detail in his expansive account of the scene-setting Prelude, from magically hushed opening woodwind and muted strings to menacing brass and growling bassoons, conjured up a sense of mystery and wonderment. The massed choirs responded to Wright’s dynamism with blistering needle point attack, whether as Souls in Purgatory, Anglicals, or the ferocious chorus of Demons. Praise to the Holiest In the Height burst into an incandescent cry of exultation from choirs and orchestra, beefed up by the sonorities of the Town Hall’s mighty organ played by Darius Battiwalla.

A stellar line-up of international soloists was led by tenor Barry Banks as a crystal clear and eloquent Gerontius, subtle of vocal colouring and with a superbly sustained Sanctus Fortis, Sanctus Deus (Holy Mighty One, Holy God). One sensed the chemistry with Dame Sarah Connolly’s consoling Guardian Angel. Connolly’s humanity shone through her every phrase: each fervently expressed “Alleluia” and with darkening of tone, her warnings of the impending judgement. Bass David Soar sonorously declaimed the Priest’s lines in Part One and had even more gravitas as the Angel of the Agony in Part Two. The great work ended sublimely with Softly and Gently, Dearly Ransomed Soul – the Angel’s tender farewell in which Connolly seemed to enfold the entire audience.

Geoffrey Mogridge Ilkley Gazette

Review: Dvorak’s Stabat Mater, Leeds Town Hall , Saturday, March 16, 2019

THE 13th century Latin poem Stabat Mater (Sorrowful Mother) imagines the sorrow of Mary, Mother of the dying Jesus, during her vigil at the foot of his Cross.

Of the many musical settings of the Stabat Mater, those by Rossini and Dvorak are constructed on the grandest scale. Both require large orchestral and choral forces, plus a quartet of vocal soloists. Rossini’s hour-long Stabat Mater has the exciting verve and mood changes of Italian opera. Dvorak’s was born of grief for the deaths in infancy of three of his children. This gives his setting a prevailing mood of sadness, though the style of writing (particularly for the soloists) is equally operatic. Given its ninety minutes running time, Dvorak’s Stabat Mater normally occupies an entire concert. In this respect, last Saturday’s fine performance conducted by David Hill was no exception. A pity that the audience was miniscule compared to a capacity house for the Oslo Philharmonic a week earlier. [Note the weather was atrocious though]

David Hill’s pacing and dynamic shading allowed this epic work to unfold in luminous orchestral and vocal detail. Balance was generally excellent between the seventy members of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, the organ, Leeds Philharmonic Chorus and St Peter’s Singers – 140 voices singing with consoling warmth and supple power. A carefully blended solo quartet surmounted the vocal challenges inherent in both the ensemble singing and the solo arias. Soprano Elizabeth Atherton soared with beauty and clarity above the orchestral textures. The mellowed timbre of mezzo Catherine Wyn-Rogers, the startling tonal purity of tenor Sam Furness, and the soft-grained bass Wojtek Gierlach all contributed to a performance of powerful emotional impact.

Geoffrey Mogridge

Ilkley gazette

Geoffrey Mogridge Ilkley Gazette

Damnation at its most uplifting thanks to Berlioz and the Hallé

Berlioz’s standing in Britain – long greater than in his native France – can only have been further bolstered by the Hallé’s uplifting account of The Damnation of Faust on Sunday evening (Manchester Bridgewater Hall, 10 Feb 2019).

This extravagant “Dramatic Legend” – performed here as part of the 150th-anniversary commemorations of the composer’s death – certainly needs a sense of occasion if its ambitions are to be fully realised, and also if we are to be carried uncomplainingly over its more dubious aspects. Berlioz’s ever-adventurous harmonies have a habit of painting themselves into corners, then casting around anxiously for an emergency exit. Some of the text, too, can hardly help but raise an unintended smile.

Happily, this performance had almost everything going for it. Mark Elder’s judicious pacing and care for balance were a joy in themselves, and they enabled a maximum of orchestral detail to register, be it from the six harps, the four bassoons, the three piccolos, or the chords on four timpani. He and the Hallé – on top form – also reminded us that some of the finest music comes in the apparently unobtrusive transitions, as much as in familiar, sure-fire set pieces such as the Rákócky March, the Song of the Flea, and The Ballet of the Sylphs.

Having four top-flight soloists is de rigueur for this piece. Tenor David Butt Philip brought a finely sustained lyricism to the part of Faust, even when it ascends to improbably stratospheric heights; French bass-baritone Laurent Naouri relished the pantomime villainry of Mephistofeles; mezzo-soprano Rachel Kelly, stepping in at a very late stage, was a mellifluous Margarita (perhaps under different circumstances she would find even greater tonal variety for “The King of Thule”); and bass David Soar seized eagerly on the bit-part of the chief reveller, Brander.

The Hallé Choir was bolstered by male voices from the London Philharmonic Choir and Leeds Philharmonic Chorus: a wise choice, because the tenors and basses have to masquerade as peasants, drinkers, soldiers, students, demons, and who know’s what else, and here they packed a walloping punch.

Rather than the Hallé Children’s Choir and the trebles of the Hallé Youth Training Choir having to twiddle their thumbs onstage for two hours, they filed in at the end through the stalls, their angelic voices helping to ensure that Margarita’s ascent into heaven was suffused with the kind of all-encompassing love that was surely at the heart of Berlioz’s vision.

David Fanning, published 11 February 2019

David Fanning The Telegraph

Review: The Damnation of Faust at the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, 10 Feb 2019, 5:00pm

Freely adapted from Goethe, The Damnation of Faust insinuates, idles, roars, croons, swells, bores, hectors, fascinates and dazzles. Berlioz’s 1846 “légende dramatique” is a gluttonous, garrulous, attention-seeking guest in any concert hall. Not quite an opera, it plays almost as cinema: zoom, pan, fade, jump-cut. For each sweet blade of new grass or gently scudding cloud that we hear in the score, there is the leathery skitter of a demonic wing, a splatter of blood and the rattle of dancing bones.

Mark Elder’s performance with the Hallé, an orchestra whose association with Berlioz stretches back to its founder’s friendship with the composer, comfortably embraced the most spare, delicate and bombastic aspects of this gothic work. The cool curve of unaccompanied violas, cellos or violins, and the tender cor anglais solo, were as vital as the tangy rustic drones, the tight-breeched, shoulders-back, musket-carrying swagger of the Marche hongroise and the lusty drinking songs of Hungarian peasants and German students (later will-o’-the-wisps, gnomes, sylphs, penitents, demons and angels).

With the Hallé Choir joined by men from the London Philharmonic Choir and Leeds Philharmonic Chorus and 100 local children, this was as much a choral showpiece as an orchestral one. The discipline of articulation and diction was first rate. Elder allows, rather than encourages, natural rubato, deftly picking up any slack with a beat that is as neat as his string players’ spiccato.

Amid the hypnotic strangeness of harp harmonics, the blister of tuba and ophicleide, the pitch-black roll of the bass drum and the tart mockery of the three piccolos, the solo vocal performances were compelling: Rachel Kelly’s Marguerite, driven wild with love and shame; David Soar’s easy, cynical Brander; Laurent Naouri’s charming, terrifying Méphistophélès; David Butt Philip’s gleaming, yearning Faust, whose ennui, like that of Werther and Onegin, is the engine of this tragedy.

Anna Picard

Published February 12 2019

Anna Picard The Times

Review: Black Dyke Band and Leeds Philharmonic Chorus, Handel’s Messiah, Leeds Town Hall, Saturday, December 8, 2018

A PERFORMANCE of Handel’s sacred oratorio with the orchestral accompaniment replaced by a brass band is probably anathema to purists. I have to say that, for me and I sensed many others, the Black Dyke Band’s lightness of touch and the golden sonorities these gifted musicians produced were revelatory.

Dr Dennis Wright’s acclaimed transcription was first performed in 1951 by the then Black Dyke Mills Band with the Halifax Choral Society. This venerable community choir, the country’s oldest, has notched up two hundred consecutive annual performance of Messiah. Last Saturday, forty members joined Leeds Philharmonic Chorus and the Dortmund Music Society Philharmonic Choir. The massed voices conducted by David Hill, “the Phil’s” music director, produced a focused tone with myriad dynamic shading, suppleness of phrasing and seemingly bottomless reserves of power.

This was a full bodied Messiah delivered with startling clarity and textural variety. Vocal and instrumental lines were consummately delineated by Dr Hill who scrupulously maintained balance between band, choirs and vocal soloists. The lightness of accompaniment to soprano Fflur Wyn’s radiant recitatives was striking. So too was bass Ben McAteer’s sonorous The Trumpet, Shall Sound. Mezzo soprano Caitlin Hulcup’s tender He was despised and rejected had both depth and poignancy, while tenor Joshua Ellicott’s Comfort ye my People soared eloquently.

Messiah’s great chorus, embellished by the glorious sounds of Leeds Town Hall’s organ played by Alan Horsey, perhaps left the most enduring images of this shining performance – or for that matter any performance of Messiah. The power and majesty of the Hallelujah Chorus with its trumpets and timpani, and Worthy is the Lamb which culminated in Dr Hill’s thrilling build-up of the stupendous Amen Chorus.

Geoffrey Mogridge

Geoffrey Mogridge Wharfedale Observor

Review: Airedale Symphony Orchestra with Leeds Philharmonic Chorus

Leeds Town Hall, Sunday, October 21, 2018 by Claire Lomax

A RICHLY varied programme marked the centenary of the 1918 Armistice and the Airedale Symphony Orchestra’s own 120th anniversary. ASO conductor John Anderson opened with Sir Edward Elgar’s swaggering Cockaigne Overture “In London Town”. Subtle orchestral colours were illuminated in the final bars by the glorious sonorities of the Town Hall organ, played by Alan Horsey.

Elgar conducted the premiere of his choral and orchestral elegy The Spirit of England in Leeds Town Hall on 3rd May 1916. Laurence Binyon’s poems had inspired the composer to some of his loveliest vocal and instrumental writing. Soprano Sarah Power and Leeds Philharmonic Chorus eloquently expressed Binyon’s immortal lines, and John Anderson’s finely balanced reading captured the work’s ebb and flow. In the final section, For the Fallen, the music built up to a great climax before gently fading into infinity – “…As the stars that are starry at the time of our darkness, to the end, to the end they remain.”

The second half opened with a centenary tribute to the RAF: Anderson and the ASO ensured that the big tunes in Sir William Walton’s stirring Spitfire Prelude and Fugue emerged in luxuriant technicolour. Next, the superbly blended voices floated the Lux aeterna around the auditorium to profoundly moving effect. This is John Cameron’s achingly beautiful transcription for unaccompanied chorus of Elgar’s Nimrod variation.

The ASO then performed John Williams’ Hymn For the Fallen from his score for Steven Spielberg’s 1998 film Saving Private Ryan. A disarmingly simple melody, austere trumpets, a solo drum cadence and an angelic chorus raised the music to the heights.

Joseph Judge, the new Leeds Philharmonic Chorus Master, conducted the unaccompanied voices in Eric Whitacre’s emotive choral miniature Sleep; the lyrics are by Charles Anthony Silvestri. Joseph’s expressive hands sculpted the phrasing and dynamics from a powerful climax down to a pianissimo whisper.

John Anderson returned to the podium to preside over the grand finale. The refulgent performance of Va Pensiero (Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves) from Verdi’s Nabucco was encored, this time with the audience encouraged to hum in unison. So to the “big” ending: Tchaikovsky’s monumental 1812 Overture was performed with the rarely heard choral embellishments valiantly sung in Russian. There was, of course, a battery of percussion, chiming bells, brass fanfares, the mighty Town Hall organ and thunderous volleys of cannon fire. The warm and responsive audience loved every note.

Claire Lomax Wharfedale Observer

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