MusicNorth East & YorkshireReview

Russian Spirits – Huddersfield Town Hall

Orchestra: Orchestra of Opera North

Conductor: Antony Hermus

Soloist: Boris Giltburg (piano)

Reviewer: Ron Simpson

The latest in the Orchestra of Opera North’s Kirklees concerts, programmed for late Sunday afternoon, again emphasised the orchestra’s versatility. This concert of Russian works of the late 19th and 20th centuries came in the middle of a run of three operas at Leeds Grand, with The Magic Flute in particular demanding a totally different musical sensibility.

A neat piece of programming brought together a charming rarity, a concert “warhorse” (as Antony Hermus put it in his amiably informative chat to the audience, unexpected, but very welcome) and a highly rated, but challenging, work – is it only in Britain that audiences regard something 70 years old as dangerously modern?

Lyadov’s Kikimora proved much more original and enjoyable than its subject matter suggested. Tone poems about witches and phantoms are seldom so much fun. Catherine Lowe’s cor anglais – the first woodwind solo in a concert where the section excelled throughout – created a real note of mystery before the music leapt into a grotesque scherzo which suggested that Lyadov had listened to Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice a dozen years previously. A jolly little fragment of a coda put smiles on faces before Tchaikovsky got serious.

Hermus reckoned that the audience would be capable of singing along with the opening – maybe an exaggeration, but Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 is one of the iconic concerto introductions, the orchestra laying down a broad melody which the piano accompanies with flamboyantly competitive chords. Boris Giltburg’s spectacular playing lived up to Hermus’ reference to him as “one of the most exciting pianists in the world” and Hermus supported him with a full-blooded, sometimes edgy orchestral accompaniment. These things vary from seat to seat, but the balance between soloist and orchestra seemed less than perfect at times. No matter – this was an exhilarating performance, especially in the theatricality of the final movement.

After the interval Hermus led the orchestra in a stunning performance of Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 5, first performed in 1945 as “a symphony on the greatness of the human soul”. A large orchestra, with piano, extensive percussion and all the fringe benefits of the woodwind section (piccolo, contra bassoon, etc.), plus a prime role for tuba, created riveting climaxes, notably in the first and last movements. In contrast, the woodwind seized on Prokofiev’s typically quirky melodies, with Colin Honour in particular enjoying the jazzy clarinet themes of the second and fourth movements.

The orchestra clearly relished Antony Hermus’ precise and emphatic – but ego-free – conducting. After a fine Tosca last year, it’s to be hoped that Opera North will see him again soon in opera house or concert hall.

Reviewed on 24 February 2019 | Image: Sasha Gusov

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