ConcertMusicNorth East & YorkshireReview

The Songs of War – Huddersfield Town Hall

Orchestra: Orchestra of Opera North

Conductor: Richard Farnes

Soloists: Fflur Wyn (soprano), Johnny Herford (baritone)

Chorus: Opera North Youth Ensembles

Reviewer: Ron Simpson

The Songs of War was remarkable in several ways. It included the world premiere of a “micro-opera”, Will Todd’s Songs of Love and Battle, commissioned by Opera North specifically for performance by its Youth Ensembles. It featured a wonderful performance of a work of death and consolation that has had a history of neglect and adulation in the 40-odd years since its composition. And the concert saw the return to the Kirklees Concert Season of Richard Farnes whose astonishingly successful time as Music Director of Opera North ended two years ago.

Will Todd is a composer who is never afraid to employ the popular and straightforward and in Songs of Love and Battle’s half-hour of vivid music, dramatic evocations of the sounds of battle, emotional vocal solos and matter-of-fact statements from the Front jostled alongside uplifting songs of the day. 

Using soprano and baritone soloists, massed children’s choirs and a generally orthodox symphony orchestra (the main oddities being the presence of an accordion and a very light woodwind section of three), Songs of Love and Battle set Maggie Gottlieb’s words in eight short parts, mostly about the build-up to the Battle of the Somme in 1916. The only earlier scene, a recruitment fair in 1914, was the most striking example of Todd’s merging of musical idioms, with a richly evocative treatment of It’s a Long Way to Tipperary, the Opera North Children’s Chorus marching boldly in their places.

The music proved accessible at all times, the final part – the approach of battle chanted over percussion – proved a suitably powerful conclusion, both Fflur Wyn and Johnny Herford sang their roles capably, Richard Farnes kept impeccable control of disparate forces, but the real heroes were the Children’s Chorus, Young Voices and Youth Chorus of Opera North, disciplined, committed and confident in music that was skilfully shaped to the abilities of singers aged from 8 to 19.

The story of Henryk Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3, Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, is full of surprises. Premiered in 1976, it received little attention, but a new recording in 1992 made it suddenly the most commercially successful classical piece around. It seems remarkable that this should happen to a 55-minute work in three movements, each marked Lento, which seldom reaches, never mind, exceeds, forte, but it chimed with the mood of the times (remember Jan Garbarek’s Officium?) and then the mood changed and it faded from the airwaves.

In 2018 it’s no longer a cliché and we can listen to it as if to a new composition – and, in Richard Farnes’ precisely controlled and totally involved treatment, it shone as a piece of deeply felt, but restrained, power, studied craftsmanship and a profound underlying humanity. It consists of settings of three poems of loss – Jesus’ mother, a girl in a Gestapo cell, a mother who has lost her son in an uprising – but the mood moves to consolation and acceptance. The orchestra is essentially a string orchestra, harp and piano often supplying punctuation, with wind instruments deployed sparingly in groups of four: trombones, flutes, horns and clarinets, plus two bassoons – no trumpets, oboes or percussion.

The first movement, nearly 30 minutes in length, began with the slowest, most compelling build-up, from double basses up through the strings with agonised serenity, then, after a middle section where Fflur Wyn, excellent throughout, sang the Holy Cross Lament of the Virgin Mary, the whole fabric unwound again down to the double basses.

Richard Farnes’ subtle micromanagement, even of silences, was revelatory – and it was a nice change to find the conductor singling out for applause at the end, not a particular featured individual, but the double bass section – quite right, too!

The concert is repeated at Leeds Town Hall on December 1, 2018 | Image: Contributed

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