Orchestra: Orchestra of Opera North
Conductor: Dalia Stasevska
Soloist: Ana Maria Labin (soprano)
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
For the final concert in the Kirklees 2018-2019 season, the Orchestra of Opera North presented a programme under the title “Reflections”. Given that it started with Lutoslawski’s Musique funebre, continued with Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs of which the final line translates as “Is this perhaps death?” and concluded with Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7 with its Adagio dedicated to the memory of “the immortal and dearly beloved Master”, the recently deceased Richard Wagner, it should perhaps have been “Reflections on Death”.
Not that it was in any way a gloomy evening, whether because of the serene resignation of the Strauss songs or the awe-inspiring burst of sound that ended the programme. Overheard on the way out, one veteran concertgoer opined, “I’ve never heard a sound like it, when they all played together” – which about sums it up.
It’s not easy to do justice to the huge scale and immense impact of Bruckner’s 7th Symphony, especially in a performance driven and controlled by such a dynamic conductor as Dalia Stasevska. A year ago the Finnish conductor made her UK debut in the Kirklees Concert Season; now her reputation is such that she has been appointed Principal Guest Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. If that means this is her last appearance at Huddersfield for some time, this was a great farewell, though sadly the attendance seemed below the normal healthy level. Over 120 years after his death Bruckner can still frighten audiences – and, given the forces needed for his symphonies, probably frightens accounts departments, too.
For the Bruckner symphony, four Wagner tubas lined up behind five French horns, with an eight-man brass section to their left. The massive orchestral tuttis in the elegiac Adagio and, especially, the final magnificent coda, and the supercharged momentum of the Scherzo were only part of the story. Stasevska expertly managed the sense of power under the restraint that drives the opening, the contrasts between declamatory brass and dancing woodwind or meditative strings and those splendid moments when a repeated phrase builds, seemingly inevitably, into a glorious climax.
The first half of the programme consisted of two shorter works, both initially performed in the 1950s, but belonging in quite different traditions. Lutoslawski’s Musique Funebre for small string orchestra is, for the most part, austere and ordered, though the climax to the second of four sections is agitated, even impassioned. Stasevska’s control, even of silences, impressed.
If Lutoslawski represents 1950s modernism, Strauss’s Four Last Songs, performed posthumously in 1950, come at the end, not only of the composer’s life, but the German romantic tradition. The final and most moving song, In Abendrot, is a setting of words by Joseph van Eichendorff whose poems had previously been set by Schumann, Brahms and many others, so Strauss followed in the Lieder tradition, though his opulent orchestral settings are far different from the usual piano accompaniment.
Romanian soprano Ana Maria Labin, expressive and pure-toned, found the dynamic and emotional range for the songs perfectly, though the balance between singer and large orchestra was sometimes strained. When that orchestra got even larger and was let off the leash, the second half proved riveting – and exhausting for both musicians and audience.
Concert repeated at Leeds Town Hall, 6th April 2019 | Image: Contributed