Conductor: Howard Shelley
There was a strong commemorative element in this all-Beethoven concert. It was originally planned for September 2020 to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth and also Howard Shelley’s 70th birthday. Like much at that time, it was postponed, but thankfully not cancelled. And now it coincided with David Greed’s final concert as the leader of the Opera North orchestra: he was appointed when Opera North was first formed in 1979. Now he is due to appear as soloist at the next Huddersfield concert, but his tenure as leader has finished after a mere 43 years!
His final concert was well chosen. The orchestra’s association with Howard Shelley, especially in their acclaimed recordings of Beethoven’s complete works for piano and orchestra, has been one of its major achievements away from the opera company.
Shelley has become celebrated for integrating his performances by conducting from the keyboard, rather more challenging with the full orchestra required for Beethoven than for a small chamber ensemble. In the performance of the Piano Concerto No. 4 the importance of knowing your orchestra was evident, Shelley cueing in with nods and looks far more often than leaping to his feet to point an orchestral climax. His authoritative performance moved from the elaborate cadenza at the end of the first movement to an expressive and deliberately hesitant reading of the gentle piano part in the extraordinary second movement: aggressively rhythmic strings set in opposition to the soothing sounds of the piano. Orchestrally Beethoven’s withholding the trumpet and timpani until the final Rondo brought an exuberant finale to a work that often pursues the unexpected.
The purely orchestral pieces were equally remarkable. The Overture: Leonore No. 3 has a chequered history. Beethoven’s attempts to find an overture for his opera Leonore (later changed to Fidelio) foundered on the problem of balance: this one was just too overwhelming for an opera that begins in a fairly light vein. But it remains a glorious concert work in its own right.
Howard Shelley is one of those conductors so adept at creating momentum that it seems (wrongly) that he is adopting a faster than usual tempo, but there was no sign of this at the start of the overture: slow, solemn, tensely dramatic. Beethoven’s sense of theatre is there in the off-stage trumpet calls that echo the Minister’s arrival. Ultimately a joyous performance, but few overtures put the audience through so much drama.
And then there’s Beethoven’s Fifth. The challenge here is for a conductor and orchestra to try to make the audience feel they are hearing it for the first time. Well, maybe that’s a bit too much to ask, but Shelley made it sound fresh, right from the blazing horn figures after the familiar “Victory-V” motif. In fact overall the most striking impression of this performance, apart from its juxtaposition of fierce intensity and melodic grace, was the impact of the various sections of the orchestra: the beautiful woodwind melodies, bassoon to the fore, in the second movement; the bounding fugue for cellos and double basses in the third movement’s Trio; and then (Beethoven keeping his powder dry again) the impact of the previously unheard trombones at the transition from Scherzo to Finale. As the final movement pinned you back in your seat again and again, between gentler passages that still maintained the irresistible momentum, it was tempting to reflect on the feelings of the 1808 audience – the chances are they were horrified at the ferocity of it all!
Reviewed on January 27th 2022