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BBC Philharmonic – Leeds Town Hall

Music: Beethoven, Webern, Brahms

Conductor: Yan Pascal Tortelier

Reviewer: Ray Taylor


Leeds Town Hall always provides such a wonderful setting for classical music concerts. It has crystal clear acoustics that enable the audience to hear and appreciate every note that is played. The audience at tonight’s concert were thrilled by the brilliance and virtuosity of both the orchestra and soloist in their playing of the two main works. Their conductor, Yan Pascal Tortelier, is very charismatic and watching him on the podium is an entertainment in itself. He does not use a baton nor follows any written score. Instead he uses his hands, arm movements, facial expression and whole body language (even jumping up and down at various points) to convey everything to the musicians and there is a palpable rapport between the two.

The concert opens with Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D with Augustin Hadelich as the soloist. This young German is fast becoming an international star and on this performance it is not difficult to see why. He plays a 1723 Stradivari violin and produces such a rich tone and marvellous sound, lyrical in the slower passages and showing off his fast fingered brilliance in the frenetic ones, that the effect on the listeners is almost hypnotic. This concerto is so famous, with one of the most instantly recognisable introductions on the timpani and its wealth of good melodies, that to make it sound so fresh and alive is an achievement. The opening of the first movement is quite long and it is interesting watching Hadelich preparing himself for his initial entry, almost trance-like but in communion almost with every note being played. The overall effect of this concerto is one of brilliance and virtuosity, the violin and orchestra in a syncopated partnership that steadily gathers momentum to a resounding conclusion. The audience absolutely love it and are treated to an encore of a Paganini Caprice that once again demonstrated Hadelich’s brilliant dexterity.

The middle piece, straight after the interval, is Passacaglia by Anton Webern. This is probably the first time many of the audience have heard this early 20th Century work. Somewhat reminiscent of Debussy or Ravel, but not in that class, it is an interesting inclusion in the programme none the less. Consisting of about twenty variations and making full use of an expanded orchestra it receives warm, if not enthusiastic, applause.

The final work, however, more than makes up for this slight dip. The mighty Fourth Symphony of Brahms was an absolute triumph. The orchestra perfectly convey the passion, drama, vigour and excitement of the music to produce a titanic sound. Tortelier is relentless in the way he drives the musicians ever forward and, by the end, everyone looked thoroughly exhausted. There is one amusing moment at the end of the first movement. An annoying sound can be heard coming somewhere from backstage in the venue: a fan or a running tap or something similar? Tortelier makes a joke of it but sends a couple of members of the orchestra off to investigate. He is not going to continue until it has been rectified – which it duly is a few minutes later. One wonders whether Brahms would have been amused.

A thoroughly engaging and enriching evening is complemented by a free, pre-concert talk given by Julian Rushton, who illustrates what he has to say about the evening’s works by extracts on the piano. Anyone coming to a future concert should really make the effort to attend one of these talks – there is nothing to lose and everything to gain.

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