Soloist: Nicholas Watts (tenor)
As Matthew Sims of the Leeds Concert Season said in his welcoming speech, it was great to be back. Clearly, for musicians as well as audience, it was a warmly emotional experience to be part of the first pilot indoor concert in the area.
However, apart from the emotional reaction and the quality of the music making, this was also a shrewdly planned event. How do you reproduce the effect of a symphony concert whilst maintaining social distancing on stage and in the audience? In a cautious pilot, you don’t want the audience milling around corridors and bars or a large orchestra crammed into the risers behind the stage.
The planning was masterly. First we had Mendelssohn’s Octet, a piece of true symphonic dimensions (some 35 minutes), but involving (of course) only eight musicians. Where the concerto might fall in the programme, Nicholas Watts sang six Schubert songs with piano accompaniment, then we finished with a Mozart symphony, always the better for modest orchestral forces, though 13 was even more modest than usual. The result: an interval-less concert of 85 minutes performed by 15 musicians – perfect!
The Octet, a remarkably mature work by the teenaged Mendelssohn, began with a serenity suitable to the occasion, but the spacious opening movement grew in passion in an increasingly fiery performance. If the gaiety of the third movement recalled the Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream which Mendelssohn wrote at a similar age, the Finale established a symphonic grandeur, building from the solemnity of the opening passage for cellos into dazzling fugal passages.
With slick observance of social distancing, as the eight musicians exited stage left, Nicholas Watts and accompanist David Cowan entered stage right to perform the first six songs of Schubert’s great song cycle, Die Schöne Müllerin, 20 songs dealing with the love of a young miller for the eponymous beautiful girl at the mill.
Even in this short selection, the emotional range was enormous, going from the breezy carefree happy wanderings of the opening song to the sweet sentiment and agonised passion of love before the sublime lyricism of the sixth (in this performance, final) song. Watts’ expressive vocal colouring of the words was matched by Cowan’s attentive and frequently dramatic accompaniment.
For Mozart’s Symphony Number 29 the octet added a double bass and, behind a screen, two horns and two oboes. In an on-line interview earlier David Greed, whose presence in his 42nd year as leader of the orchestra emphasised the beginning of the return of normality, explained that playing Mozart without a conductor makes for greater freedom of expression. Certainly – and playing a Mozart symphony with 13 musicians imparted a lightness of touch to go with it. The second movement, in fact, had more of a chamber music feel to it than much of the Mendelssohn Octet.
With the irresistible momentum of the Finale the concert ended on a suitably optimistic note, the audience response suggestive of a full Town Hall, not one sparsely populated by islands of listeners in groups of no more than four.
Reviewed at Leeds Town Hall on August 28th 2020