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BBC Philharmonic and Leeds Festival Chorus – Leeds Town Hall

Music: Schumann, Bruch &Rachmaninov

Conductor: Simon Wright

Reviewer: Sara Jackson


Leeds Town Hall is a charming venue for a lively celebration of music. Tonight Simon Wright conducts the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra in Schumann’s Nachtlied, Bruch’s Violin Concerto No. 1, and Rachmaninov’s Vespers and The Bells.

The evening of Romantics begins with Schumann’s Nachtlied. It’s not his best-known work, but it proves a rather charming way to begin an evening. It’s all about the ebb and flow of the music, rising to a climax and falling away again. It’s a piece that demands remarkable sensitivity from orchestra, choir, and conductor alike, and in this difficult task, Simon Wright proves himself superbly capable of maintaining consistency in tone and emotion.

There is a wonderful moment during Bruch’s Violin Concerto when Rachel Kolly d’Alba, the young Swiss violinist, has to put down her Stradivarius during an orchestral section. Deprived of an outlet, the tremendous energy that has become her trademark seems to infuse her whole body; she twitches impatiently, almost dancing, tossing her fiery red hair like a racehorse in the traps.

Of course, whenever she is playing, it becomes clear why Ms Kolly d’Alba has become so highly regarded for her passionate approach to the violin, and Bruch’s Concerto is a perfect fit for her style – the frenetic cadenzas of the first movement, the energy of the finale, and of course that glorious melody in the middle, are all pounced upon gleefully and executed with wonderful freshness and joy. A little less vibrato in the gentler sections would be preferable, but then vibrato is Ms Kolly d’Alba’s greatest strength and calling-card, the lady for sticks with her best feature.

When contemplating the Russian Romantics, the things that most often come to mind are the stirring strings and piano virtuosity. That’s why it’s nice to see the choral side of Rachmaninov being given centre stage during the second half of this performance. It’s also interesting to note that the composer himself considered the two pieces on offer tonight as his favourite of his own works. Beginning with settings 1, 3, 6 and 15 from his All-Night Vigil (often known as the Vespers), the Leeds Festival Chorus gives wonderful voice to these settings of a Russian Orthodox ceremony.

To round off the evening, orchestra and choir comes together for Rachmaninov’s The Bells. With Sarah Tynan, Daniil Shtoda and Mark Stone taking soprano, tenor and bass solos. The BBC Philharmonic shines in what the composer originally regarded as his third Symphony. Each of the four movements is hugely varied, from the almost fairytale tinkling of the opening, through to the frankly brutal third movement, in which all four percussionists are given full rein and seem to be trying their utmost to crack the foundations of the hall while the choir and orchestra soar the Dies Irae theme over them. In the midst of this, it’s understandable but unfortunate that the excellent soloists’ voices are occasionally lost, but such are the vagaries of the concert hall. What is heard from them, and from the choir, is how well the Russian language lends itself to choral works. By turns ominous, sombre, and tender, the relative unfamiliarity of the tongue compared to Italian or German adds another layer to this wonderfully rich and nuanced performance.

The Leeds Orchestral Season continues over winter, and tonight’s performance has been a fine addition to any line-up. truly superb work all round, with a beautifully balanced programme and not a weak link anywhere.

The Leeds International Orchestral Season runs until December 13th.

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One comment

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    Why only four stars then?