Brahms Requiem & Academic Festival Overture
Leeds Philharmonic Chorus
Orchestra of Opera North
Leeds Festival Chorus
Leeds Town Hall, 24 May 2014
Brahms’ boisterous Academic Festival Overture is usually heard minus its choral embellishments, but that would have been a waste of the Leeds Festival and Leeds Philharmonic Choruses already seated in the risers above the orchestra. Much more than merely a warm-up for Brahms’ German Requiem in the second half, the choirs sang with lusty full-throated vigour the undergraduate drinking songs which form the imposing coda of the overture.
From 200-plus voices to just one: Grammy Award winning Welsh soprano Rebecca Evans, appropriately wearing a sparkling full-length autumnal gold dress, came on stage to sing the Four Last Songs of Richard Strauss. Composed just a year before Strauss’s death in 1949, this reflective autumnal music is suffused with an other-worldly calm. Evans spun a seamlessly beautiful vocal line, occasionally glancing at the score on the stand in front of her, but otherwise completely inhabiting these lovely songs. Her soaring vocal modulations in Beim Schlafengehen (Going to Sleep) preceded by David Greed’s rapturous violin solo, culminated in a heavenly top B. The lush string tone, burnished horns and silken woodwind of the Orchestra of Opera North, sensitively conducted by Simon Wright, created a ravishing backdrop. In Im Abendrot (At Sunset) Strauss’s evocation of skylarks was beautifully etched by the piccolos as if against a rose-tinted sky.
Twenty five years separate the irreverent humour of Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture from his remarkable “humanist” Requiem. Simon Wright’s expansive opening allowed the richness of the orchestral scoring to bathe the consoling tones of the choirs whose diction, blending and dynamic shading were near-perfect. The power and majesty of the second movement was beefed-up by the sonorities of the Town Hall organ played by Simon Lindley; the rhythmic energy and agility of the choral line in the brilliant fugue was electrifying. Rebecca Evans’ silvery timbre and the crystalline projection of baritone Stephen Loges illuminated their solo sections. Above all, Simon Wright’s mastery of the architecture of what is effectively a choral symphony created a sublime experience – a fitting climax to the orchestral season.
The Dream of Gerontius
Leeds Town Hall
Saturday 15th February 2014
The late Mary Wilson of Ilkley sang in the soprano section of Leeds Philharmonic Chorus for an astonishing 52 years before going on to serve as President of the Friends of this famous Leeds choir. It is not difficult to believe that Mary would have been absolutely delighted with last Saturday’s performance of Elgar’s choral masterpiece dedicated to her memory.
Mary’s beloved “Phil” was joined on stage by Sheffield Philharmonic Chorus, St Peter’s Singers and Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Hill. The Massed voices and orchestra amounted to some 350 performers; what an awesome sound they created when Hill unleashed his vast forces for those monumental climaxes. The Demons’ Chorus, backed by the BSO’s snarling brass and sniping woodwind, lacked nothing in its unanimity of attack and spine-tingling ferocity. The effect of Praise to the Holiest in the Height, bolstered by the mighty Town Hall organ played by Darius Battiwalla, could be likened to a dazzling firework display that bathed this ornate auditorium in an exultant blaze of light. But it was in the quieter sections, such as the opening Kyrie eleison, that one could really marvel at the expert blending of voices and the exquisite shading of dynamics achieved by the Phil’s Music Director.
Gerontius was gloriously sung by the tenor Andrew Staples, stepping in at short notice for an indisposed Andrew Kennedy. Staples’ beautifully sustained line, his phrasing and projection of the text infused the voice with anguish and resignation. Mezzo soprano Jennifer Johnston, radiant and consoling as the Angel, produced a ravishing spectrum of tone colour culminating in her deeply-felt and poignant farewell. Baritone Gareth John sung the role of the Priest with bright-toned evangelical fervour. John subtly darkened his voice as the Angel of the Agony cushioned by the gleaming brass, celestial harps and velvety strings of the Bournemouth Orchestra. The transcendent quality of this superlative performance of the Dream of Gerontius is destined to linger in the memory.
Leeds Philharmonic Chorus and the Hallé
Leeds Town Hall, 2 November 2013
Thoughts of war and remembrance permeated this concert of orchestral and choral music. Elgar’s Overture In the South (Alassio) is effectively a tone poem for large orchestra containing an elegiac central section adorned by a ravishing viola solo. Elgar recalls the thoughts and sensations experienced on a glorious afternoon in the Vale of Andora. The Hallé conducted by David Hill captured the swooping phrases that characterise the expression of longing in so much of Elgar’s music. The ebullient outer sections of the overture pulsed with rhythmic energy although the heavy brass was too often allowed to swamp strings and wind textures.
A similar problem occurred In Elgar’s Choral triptych The Spirit of England, in which the orchestral tuttis should have been reined in. Instead, the 120 voices of the Leeds Philharmonic Chorus were all but subsumed. Hardly a word of the text of three war poems by Laurence Binyon was intelligible. This is not Elgar’s greatest word setting; soprano soloist Elizabeth Watts’ soaring notes managed (just) to penetrate the dense musical jungle.
Ralph Vaughan Williams’ 1936 Dona Nobis Pacem, a setting of poems by Walt Whitman and others, is altogether in a different league. RVW deploys the large orchestra with more consideration for the singers, better enabling Leeds Philharmonic Chorus to project the text with clarity and invest the words with some meaning. Baritone soloist Alex Ashworth’s dark timbre and excellent diction added authority to his lines. Elizabeth Watts’ creamy voice again soared above the orchestra as she intoned the words “Dona Nobis Pacem” (Grant us Peace). The mighty Town Hall organ, played with his customary elan by Simon Lindley, added considerable weight and sonority.
The Hallé, Leeds Philharmonic Chorus & Leeds Festival Chorus
Leeds Town Hall, 25 May 2013
20th Century American music made for a refreshing finale to Leeds International Orchestral Season. It was a pity though that John Adams’ Harmonium had to be dropped from the programme, for technical reasons. That left the 200 choristers assembled behind the Hallé Orchestra with just one work lasting less than twenty minutes; and what an extraordinarily beautiful one. Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms were composed fifty years ago for the combined cathedral choirs of Chichester, Winchester and Salisbury.
The composer’s preference was for all-male voices – as deployed for the 1965 Chichester Cathedral premiere. It is difficult to imagine that Bernstein would not have been delighted with the supple phrasing and rich tonal colours of the Leeds choirs, together with the luminous playing of the Halle. The Leeds Festival and Philharmonic Choruses projected the Hebrew text with clarity and startling dynamic contrast under the baton of David Hill. Boy soprano Joseph McDermott was the plaintive and pure-toned soloist in the recitative-aria section of Psalm 23.
Hill and the Hallé had a whale of a time with Copland’s Four Dance Episodes from Rodeo, Bernstein’s sparkling Candide Overture, and his percussive, bittersweet Symphonic Dances from West Side Story. The two opening items created striking textural contrasts – the awesome percussion and brass in Copland’s stupendous Fanfare for the Common Man, followed by the austere solemnity of Barber’s famous Adagio for Strings
“A Mozart piano concerto, a rarely performed Haydn Mass and Mozart’s Requiem drew a capacity audience for a concert that will go down as one of the season’s finest.
Haydn’s Miss Brevis in B Flat, generally known as the Little Organ Mass, opened the concert. Leeds Philharmonic Chorus’s soft and poignantly sung Dona Nobis Pacem (Rest in Peace) seemed in perfect accord with the mood of Remembrance that has permeated the week. Mozart’s stupendous setting of the Requiem Mass composed in the final weeks of his life and incomplete at the time of his death occupied the second half.
Full choir and orchestra, as distinct from the reduced forces for the Haydn, were now on stage together with Leeds City Organist Simon Lindley. This performance amply demonstrated that David Hill’s declared intention to “take the Phil up a league” is much more than an empty promise.
All of the by now familiar hallmarks of this conductor were evident: rhythmic vitality, absolute clarity of orchestral and choral textures, excellent diction and perfect balance. There was an immediacy and directness about the singing which was breathtaking and the dynamic range from the softness of the Lacrymosa to the force and power of the closing Communio was astonishing. Soprano Sarah Fox, mezzo Sarah Fryer, tenor Timothy Robinson and bass Roderick Williams made up the excellent solo quartet in this great performance, a performance clearly from the heart.
Conductor David Hill found smiles in the Little Organ Mass by Haydn, that master of subtle wit. His choir’s sopranos sounded as though butter wouldn’t melt in the mischievous extended end of the Gloria – written, it is said, to annoy the Esterhazy Chapel clergy.
The Chorus were “tremendae” indeed in the Rex tremendae section, dynamic in Confutatis and brought a chilling sense of inexorability to Lacrymosa.
Few cities have one choral society of this quality – Leeds has two.
David Hill, music director of Leeds Philharmonic Chorus, clearly in his element marshalling large forces, produced a wonderfully clear and coherent performance. With Hill at the helm, every detail is transparent, every strand of orchestral or choral texture carefully delineated. That is not to imply his performances – although invariably meticulously balanced – are somehow lacking soul or atmosphere. Far from it, his finely nuanced reading of A Mass of Life created an atmosphere of grandeur and mystery that it is hard to imagine being bettered.
This venerable institution has had a spring in its collective step ever since David Hill was appointed as its music director. The choir now sounds younger and fresher, the blending and balancing of voices more refined.
A choir of some 130 voices might be substantially greater than the scale of forces nowadays favoured by many Bach interpreters but the tightness and discipline of this performance ensured that the larger body of singers did not compromise the clarity or flow of the work. Projection of the German text was excellent and Hill’s setting of tempi allowed his voices to colour their lines.
Leeds Philharmonic brought its refreshingly young sound along…. There was dynamic force for the big moments, but, in the hugely risky and complex double fugue at the Sanctus, this could have been a mere octet. And with the opening pianissimo – as well as the chanted Libera Me at the end of the piece – even a force this size showed, under Petrenko, that it could be sprightly and disciplined….I’ve heard this piece in venues worldwide by what have often been called the world’s best this or that. This Liverpool performance has got to be, for its sheer verve and dynamism as well as its spirituality, as good as it can get.
Working together, backed by an enlarged orchestra, the breadth of experience of the massed choirs ensured the depth of expression and sustaining of power needed to make the cataclysmic zero tolerance of Verdi’s Day of Judgement (Dies Irae) both theatrically terrifying and musically terrific. That meant that the tumult, when it came, even gave the impression that there was resource and energy still held in reserve, ensuring that the sound never became coarse. Equally, when quiet and penitence were required, the choirs’ ability to produce a hushed accompaniment to the quartet of soloists was just as telling.