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Kirklees Orchestral Concerts: Beethoven: Coriolan Overture, Poulenc: Organ Concerto, Beethoven: Symphony No. 9 “Choral”. soloists, Huddersfield Choral Society, Orchestra of Opera North, Richard Farnes, Huddersfield Town Hall, 29.09.2005 (P Se)

 

Gordon Stewart (organ), Linda Richardson (soprano), Jane Irwin (mezzo soprano), Jeffrey Lloyd Roberts (tenor), Matthew Best (bass)



 

Huddersfield Town Hall was opened in 1881, so you don’t need a brain the size of a planet to figure out that it is one of those many monuments to civic pride which sprang up in Victorian times. I suppose that it is relatively unusual hereabouts in not being crowned by a clock-tower. Elaborate as is its architecture, it is nevertheless basically a simple box-shape which reflects the proportions of the enclosed main “concert hall”.

 

These halls were, of course, never intended exclusively for the performance of music: at one end people do whatever it is they want to do, at the other people sit attentively and observe what it is that they are doing. There was none of this latter-day “acoustic architecture” malarkey, and yet such halls generally have, if not outstanding, then at least reasonably acceptable acoustics. These were a fortuitous by-product of alliance of simple geometry and that Victorian fondness for festooning everything with baroque twiddly bits. It’s just as well, because out here in the “sticks” we’re still waiting patiently for our turn to get purpose-built, acoustically-engineered concert halls.

 

Correspondingly, the Kirklees concert season, which is distributed across Huddersfield and Dewsbury Town Halls, is nothing like as ambitious as you will find in the major cities, although local music-lovers will be quick to point out that Huddersfield Town Hall’s professional season is supplemented substantially by those of our two fine amateur symphony orchestras – the Huddersfield Philharmonic and the Slaithwaite Philharmonic. By and large, though, you can forget about “big international names” and visiting orchestras of great renown. Apart from one concert in March, when we play host to the Northern Sinfonia, all the way from exotic Newcastle, here in Huddersfield all the orchestral concerts are given by the Leeds-based Orchestra of Opera North. Ever-so-slightly cynically, I might suggest that, when they come to Huddersfield, at least the players aren’t fagged out with all that incessant charging around the globe. They may not be the Berlin Phil., but they are all damned good musicians, who play with bags of character and dedication.

 

Right, so much for the scene-setting, now let’s knuckle down to the matter in hand! Tonight’s conductor was Richard Farnes, since September 2004 the Music Director of Opera North and who, like Barbirolli, sported a pair of white shirt-cuffs prominently protruding from the sleeves of his black jacket. He put these to good practical use, having a generosity of gesture that must make him a dream for the players to follow.

 

To my mind, Beethoven’s diminutive Coriolan Overture (see my programme note) is in many ways more of a masterpiece than his massive Choral Symphony. I expected this potent musical mini-drama to be right up their street. Indeed, the opening phrases, seemingly ground out through gritted teeth, and the main tempo, measuring mobility against gravity, augured well. It didn’t quite work out. At the insistence of the pleading second, the consuming rage and resolve of the first subject should gradually weaken. To some extent, Beethoven built this into his score – but it can be overridden by the manner of performance. So it was here, reminding me a bit of Richard Strauss’s view of the finale of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony! Yet, in spite of my reservations about the strategy, there were some fine tactics to savour en route: a good, solid body of rhythmically articulate string sound, some piquant wind playing, and in particular a delightfully doom-laden morendo into a coda of truly dismaying desolation.

 

It could be argued that the two main works were showcases for local treasures. Thus, Poulenc’s wonderfully scatty Organ Concerto displayed the abilities not only of the hall’s redoubtable Father Willis organ, but also of the equally redoubtable Kirklees Borough Organist, Gordon Stewart. It never ceases to amaze me how Poulenc blithely sidestepped the problem he had with constructional continuity. At heart a miniaturist, he seemed to have neither the ability nor the inclination to faff around with organic development and what-have-you. No, he simply took his musical “tiles” and used them to fabricate musical “mosaics”.

 

Although the effect is veiled by some larger-than-average tiles, this is true even of the Organ Concerto, a veritable kaleidoscope of music-hall and church cloisters, with even something of “The Phantom of the Opera” ‑ although, I hasten to add, not Lloyd-Webber’s! – thrown in for ballast. With immaculate theatricality, just before the performance started the organ’s frontage was set aglow with deep rose-coloured light. Then, taking full advantage of the organ’s reputation in this respect, Gordon Stewart erected a formidable wall of richly-resplendent sound, providing us all with one of the very few truly genuine opportunities to breathe the otherwise over-used word “awesome”.

 

Yet, he did not let the beast slip its leash and run amok. As the music progressed, Stewart dazzled his audience with a mesmerising procession of timbres and dynamics, each imaginatively chosen with the finest sensitivity to its musical context. Meanwhile, at the front, Farnes marshalled his strings and tympani admirably, eliciting a highly sympathetic, unanimous orchestral response to the variegated sounds of the organ. From syrupy sweetness through harmonic “lemon drops” to seismic discord, from ecclesiastical purity through throbbing romance to jazzy skittering, dare I say that “no stop remained un-pulled”?

 

The body of strings was not exactly enormous (12-10-8-6-4), but at no time was the balance anything less than immaculate which, in view of this organ’s reputation for threatening its hall’s foundations, is really saying something  It struck me that, all things considered, this was a performance of immense theatricality. Given the orchestra’s “day job”, that is of course entirely appropriate, but it did make me wonder why they didn’t do the same with the one piece in the concert that is theatrical. Never mind, it was compensation enough to have what was, for me, just about the most alluring performance of this concerto that I’ve ever heard.

 

Over the years, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, or more precisely its “Ode to Joy” tune, has come in for more than its fair share of abuse. Quite apart from its use in horrific aversion therapy in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, only the night before this concert I came across it in a TV showing of Romero’s cult horror film The Day of the Dead! So, just now the sound of the tune evokes in me the image of a captive zombie in an underground laboratory, standing transfixed by these very sounds coming through headphones. Life’s full of such little felicities, don’t you think?

 

This (the Beethoven, not the zombie) brings us to the third local treasure: the Huddersfield Choral Society, which is “merely” the greatest of innumerable such ensembles that crowd the district. Hereabouts, the presence of the HCS at a concert almost always guarantees there won’t be an empty seat in the house. This has a little to do with the undying devotion of its fan-club, but much, much more to do with the “unique and thrilling full-bodied ‘Huddersfield sound’” (to quote the programme booklet). When the HCS is on-song, it is not something to be passed up lightly.

 

However, I’m getting a bit ahead of myself! The “mystical” opening was, apart from the commendably delicate first violins, nowhere near soft enough. In fact, for some inexplicable reason the soft pedal seemed to have gone AWOL for pretty well the entire extent of the first movement. This was a pity, because Farnes otherwise conjured some captivating contours in the tender woodwind phrases, and in general put the music across as athletic and virile, generating a considerable head of steam in the seething development section. But then, in the central climax, he allowed rampant tympani to more or less drown out the rest of the orchestra. This seems to be so common in performances, but why ‑ when thereby you lose telling details, such as the shuddering basses, that generate so much more real tension than any amount of amorphous drum-roaring? What makes it even more puzzling is that Farnes brought off the coda superbly, through the simple expedient of keeping the music in tempo right up to the last, and letting the dynamics take care of the dramatic impact.

 

Things improved in the scherzo, which had more light and shade. For a few moments, I thought that the violins were fudging the notorious second note of the theme, the one that is so often glossed out of existence if the music’s taken too quickly. But no! When I looked at the players, they were clearly playing the note, so it was a down to an acoustic foible (I never said the acoustics were perfect, did I?!).  In fact, as the acoustically advantaged winds entered the fray, so spread through the ranks a bubble and fizz that would not have displeased Mendelssohn.

 

In a way, the most impressive movement was the third, and not just because it was played with such tenderness and delicacy that I wondered if the reason  why there wasn’t much in evidence earlier was that they’d been saving it all up for this. It’s marked “adagio molto e cantabile; andante moderato”. Farnes, who in any event hadn’t been dawdling all through, kicked that “adagio” straight into touch, and boldly went for a true “andante” from the kick-off. As a result, he came up with a movement that absolutely oozed “cantabile”. Well, he is an operatic conductor, so should I have been at all surprised?

 

Hum. In these days, when this movement is increasingly played “adagissimo maximo religioso, quasi missa da requiem” (please excuse my dog-Italian!), I suppose I should be. Whatever – the important thing is that Farnes had the guts to ignore all that overcooked reverential nonsense and seek the “song” in the music. He found it, wrapped in a bit of the soul of Papa Haydn, and it was beautiful to behold. Along with the song came some rhythmic edges, and a good deal more sense to Beethoven’s otherwise apparently rambling string figurations. Thus it became the music of a man that loved life, rather than one awaiting death, and hence a far more fitting prelude to the joyous finale.

 

Finale? Ah, yes, the “Ode to Joy” and all that. Curiously enough, on the very same evening as this was performed in the concert hall, in the council chamber the custodians of civic dignity were solemnly debating whether those good folk of Huddersfield, who made so bold as to feed bread to the pigeons, should be fined £80 for their sins. Asides aside, the orchestral prelude was nicely done, although here a couple more double-basses would have helped alleviate a slightly underflated feel in the music’s foundations. I particularly enjoyed Farnes’ lead-in to the theme itself: when it started, it was as if it had been “released” and, before any human voice had got near, it set off singing with the woodwind counterpoints circling around its head, for all the World like happy birds (though, I fear, not pigeons!). After a bracing, brassy climax and a juicily raucous fanfare, we hit a problem.

 

Matthew Best (he of Corydon Singers fame) intoned the words “O Freunde” sounding robust, authoritative and “hollow”! “Surely this cannot be?” I thought to myself (so as not to disturb my neighbours), but it was so. Why? Well, the soloists were arrayed in a line behind the orchestra and immediately in front of the choir. I can see the idea, but in this case there were two reasons why it wouldn’t work. One is a slight acoustic recession at the centre of the platform, most noticeable from the stalls ‑ up in the balcony it’s less of a problem, but unfortunately that’s where I wasn’t. It doesn’t seem to bother the winds too much, but it isn’t very kind to vocal soloists. The other is that it’s never a good idea to put soloists right in front of and slightly below the Huddersfield Choral Society.

 

When the said Society, evidently on excellent form tonight, made its first entry, the effect was electrifying. That “Huddersfield sound”, born of what strikes me as an unusually high proportion, though far from “dis-proportion”, of male voices, is awe-inspiring. Cut loose, as the composer intended, it would need a Pavarotti in his prime to rise above it from below, as Jeffrey Lloyd Roberts found out in his martial variation. Again, the acoustic didn’t help, apparently stifling his quieter and passing his louder notes, exaggerating the tendency of the tenor to “bark” in this passage. So, it probably wasn’t his fault, but from where I was sitting that’s how it sounded

 

Of course, only the gentlemen get actual solos to sing; the ladies join in only as part of the vocal quartet. I’m pleased to report that this was a happy ensemble, blending with and bouncing off one another very sweetly, nobody sticking out like a sore thumb (i.e. full marks to soprano Linda Richardson!), and nary a nasty wobble in sight or sound. The crucial vocal cadenza was lovely, crowned by (three cheers!) a top note of commendable grace and delicacy.

 

But, when all’s said and done, the finale of the Ninth really belongs to the choir and orchestra. Faults were few. As is usual, the percussion that Beethoven had taken the trouble to put in sounded as if they had been largely taken back out by the performers. This puzzles me: elsewhere, cymbals and bass drum never have trouble making themselves heard, so why do they here? Is there some secret rule that forbids a decent bit of boisterous “crash, bang, wallop” in this symphony? In the orchestra’s martial episode I could hear the tiny, tinkly triangle as clear as a bell, but that was about it. Also, it seemed that the choir hadn’t left anything in reserve for their final exclamation of “Götterfunken, Götterfunken”, although to be fair Farnes didn’t haul back the reins here, so they had precious little room to let it rip anyway.

 

Of course, these are relatively minor carps that take disproportionate numbers of words to express! Overall, this finale was stunningly well done. The choir and orchestra combined to generate, at one extreme, a joyful noise that filled the hall and threatened to burst its walls. At the other, they caused the central, heavenly passage emerging from “Seid umschlungen” also to fill the hall, not with any noise, joyful or otherwise, but with fragrant caresses. It may not have been the “perfect” Ninth, but it had a lot going for it, not least that eye-opener of a slow movement, for which my thanks to Mr. Farnes. I for one left the hall a happy man, whistling, albeit in less-than-perfect intonation, the melody of the “Ode to Joy” as I strolled through the dark and drizzly streets back to my car. And, guess what? Not a zombie in sight!

 

Paul Serotsky

 


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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)