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Leeds Town Hall, Sunday 31 October 2021:

Orchestra of Opera North
Conductor: Garry Walker
Soloists: Sophie Bevan & Claudia Huckle

The performance spaces in Leeds seem to be taking it in turns to close for refurbishment. Now it’s the turn of the Town Hall. For the last orchestral concert for two years an early evening Sunday performance provided an overwhelming finale.

Mahler’s Symphony No 2 (Resurrection) is a massive work in every way. It lasts for some 85 minutes, a complete concert in itself, but more than that it calls for massive forces: ten trumpets, for instance, six on stage, four off, eleven horns, again four of them offstage, two soloists and vocal forces such that the Chorus of Opera North, Leeds Festival Chorus and Leeds Philharmonic Chorus were all ranged up behind the mightily augmented orchestra. And the subject, from the ultimate existential question at the time of death through to the Day of Judgement and resurrection, could not be vaster.

The performance by the Orchestra of Opera North was by turn thrilling, terrifying and uplifting. Garry Walker, the Music Director of Opera North, seems to have inherited from his distinguished predecessor, Richard Farnes, the ability to marshal huge forces with minimum fuss, to express great emotional intensity while keeping a precise grasp of detail.

The Resurrection Symphony is bookended by two enormous movements, maybe 30 minutes each, which butt their heads against the problems of existence, separated by three varied movements of lesser intensity. The first movement is essentially a funeral march, alternating with more lyrical passages and punctuated by ever more terrifying climaxes. As so often in this symphony, it’s the brass and percussion that grab the attention, but it’s the menacing solemnity of the lower strings in the opening bars that sets the tone.

Rather than follow sonata form or a theme-and-variations pattern, Mahler seems to pursue what is almost a dramatic scenario, switching from one scene to another, contrasting one mood with another. Walker led the orchestra expertly through the serene Landler of the second movement, its fragmentary phrases precisely articulated, the swirling patterns of the Scherzo and the beguiling song, O Roschen rot, from Das Knaben Wunderhorn, sung by Claudia Huckle with appropriate purity of tone, supported by the reassuring warmth of a brass chorale, the brass on a brief respite from terrifying the life out of any listener.

And then violent brass and percussion outbursts outdo each other until we come to the drum roll of which Mahler said, “Just listen…and your hair will stand on end!” – this reviewer can vouch for the literal truth of that! After the Last Trump brass and percussion rumble away offstage while a flute picks up a nightingale’s song and eventually the two soloists (in this case, the soprano was the excellent Sophie Bevan), choirs and orchestra draw the listener to God.

Whether the listener actually accepts Mahler’s words on the divinity, in a performance of such committed intensity, the Resurrection Symphony is an inspiring experience.

The Reviews Hub
Reviewed by Ron Simpson, 31 October 2021

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