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.
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
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