ConcertMusicNorth East & YorkshireOperaReview

Orchestra of Opera North: Sibelius, Bruch and Strauss – Town Hall, Leeds

Conductor: Adrian Leaper

Soloist: Jack Liebeck (violin)

Reviewer: Ron Simpson

The final concert of the Orchestra of Opera North’s Kirklees season was repeated at Leeds Town Hall as part of the Leeds International Orchestral Season. Three major pieces, all composed in the half century from 1880, explored in different ways the life and landscapes of the remoter and more rugged parts of Northern and Central Europe.

Unfortunately Opera North’s recently appointed Music Director, Aleksandar Markovic, was unable to conduct as advertised and Adrian Leaper stepped in at short notice, delivering a remarkably assured performance of Richard Strauss’ challenging Alpine Symphony, full of dynamic contrast and dramatic climaxes.

Sir Thomas Beecham, as usual, cloaking wisdom beneath frivolity, famously remarked that the British may not like music, but they love the noise it makes. The wonderful sound of a first-class orchestra at full throttle excites irrespective of the direction of the musical flow, especially when, as here in the Alpine Symphony, nine horns (four doubling Wagner tubas) were lined up alongside 16 woodwind, 11 brass, organ, celeste and two harps, with a well-filled string section and a percussion team armed with wind machine and thunder machine. 

However, between the thrilling climaxes, the orchestra also gave full value to Strauss’ more subtly melodic passages. The performance began in the quiet of Night before Sunrise bore hints of Also Sprach Zarathustra; the flutes and clarinets saw to it that the Alpine bird population got its due; after the storm (very thunderous) the gentle drips of rain reasserted themselves and, over a chorale-like organ theme, first solo horn, then other wind instruments, wound their way towards calm and the return of Night.

Adrian Leaper’s exemplary control would no doubt have made it easy to follow Strauss’s detailed scenario of a mountaineer ascending and descending a mountain, enjoying flowery meadows and a mountain pasture, enduring dangerous moments on a glacier, and much more, but unfortunately modern practice is to sell programmes with all this information, too much to memorise, then dim the lights! Sometimes details of the story were obvious in the music; often it was a matter of letting the amazing sounds raise goose bumps without knowing why.

Before the interval, a graceful performance of Sibelius’ tone poem, Tapiola, evoking Northern forest-scapes, preceded Max Bruch’s exhilarating Scottish Fantasy. Soloist Jack Liebeck played with great delicacy and artistry, perhaps rather too much delicacy for a large hall with a sizeable orchestra in support. Beautiful details of phrasing were more in evidence than robust statements of the Fantasy’s folk themes – until the final Allegro guerriero which was, as ever, irresistible.

Reviewed on 1 April 2017 | Image: Contributed

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