Leeds Town Hall, 24th 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.
Leeds Philharmonic Chorus
Orchestra of Opera North
Leeds Festival Chorus
Ilkley Gazette and Wharfedale & Aireborough Observer