"Except the Lord Build the House, They Labour in Vain that Build it; Weave Truth with Trust; Except the Lord Keep the City, the Watchman Waketh but in Vain”: mottos or proclamations of Victorian morality inscribed on the walls and friezes of this magnificent 1550 seat barrel-vaulted auditorium. Leeds Town Hall has been the focus for the city's orchestral and choral concerts for more than 150 years and, in the last decade or so, the setting for a series of unforgettable Opera North semi-staged or "dramatised concert" performances including Oedipus Rex, Troilus and Cressida, Tristan und Isolde, Bluebeard's Castle, Hansel und Gretel, Nabucco, Salome and Elektra. And there's much more to come: in June 2011 the magical, low E flat which opens Wagner's Das Rheingold will herald the dawn of Opera North's Ring Cycle in Leeds Town Hall.
Since its inception back in 1978, the Orchestra of Opera North has effectively been Leeds's and Yorkshire's own symphony orchestra, in addition to its core commitment in the orchestra pit of Leeds Grand Theatre and Opera North's regular touring venues. The orchestra's dual role enables the players to spread their wings into the large scale symphonic and choral repertoire, frequently entailing an increase in playing strength far beyond the sixty to seventy which the Grand Theatre's pit is able to comfortably accommodate. Well over ninety musicians assembled on the platform of the Town Hall for this Leeds International Concert Season programme of Wagner, Strauss and Mahler, conducted by Finnish maestro Hannu Lintu, with soloist Amanda Roocroft.
This concert marked Lintu's first appearance with the Orchestra of Opera North and it soon became evident that we were in for a very special evening. Lintu's stabbing double-armed downbeat launched the orchestra into the glorious fanfare with which the Good Friday Music from Act III of Parsifal begins. He then allowed the music to unfold in all of its majesty and wonderment. The strings positively shimmered and glowed, the woodwind was exquisitely pointed, the horns warm and burnished, every detail illuminated and bathed in the spacious acoustic of Leeds Town Hall. The spatial qualities of this auditorium surely cry out for the complete third act of Wagner's sacred music drama - Opera North and Leeds International Concert Season kindly note.
Amanda Roocroft's first appearance in this hall must have been during the late 80s when still a graduate at the Royal Northern College of Music. The City of Leeds College of Music (as it was then known) mounted a performance of Verdi's Requiem, given by the College's mainly student populated symphony orchestra and choral society, conducted by the avuncular Sir Charles Groves. Groves' presence on the rostrum aroused a degree of excitement as did the voice of the soprano soloist - the young Roocroft. She has returned here since those salad days, notably in Britten's War Requiem and Strauss's Four Last Songs.
A welcome opportunity then, to hear the acclaimed soprano in action after an absence of several years, not in the Four Last Songs, but in five taken from much earlier sets, or composed as stand alone works. "Die heil'gen drei Kön'ge aus Morgenland" comprises the first of Six Songs for Voice and Piano Op 56, composed in 1906 and orchestrated later. The tender and affectionate "Meinem Kinde" is from an earlier set of Six Songs Op 37. "Zueignung" dates from 1885 and is from a set of eight poems for voice and piano. This song did not receive its orchestral accompaniment until fifty years later. The love poem "Morgen" is from the pen of John Henry Mackay and was orignally cast for piano alone and an obbligato violin part was added later. In 1897, Strauss created the orchestral version with the prominent violin solo retained. "Cäcilie" was composed just twenty four hours before Strauss's nuptials at Weimar on 10th September 1894.
Roocroft, wearing a sumptuous, full length velvet gown made her stately progress to the front of the platform. From the opening bars of "Die heil'gen", this singer's rich creamy quality, elegant phrasing and subtle colouring of words were conspicuous qualities of her performance. Although the music stand was in front of her, this was not a barrier and the singer frequently smiled and engaged with the audience. "Meinem Kinde" was achingly beautiful, Roocroft's caressing tone perfectly balanced against the luxuriant orchestral textures and the famous violin solo, played on this occasion by orchestra leader David Greed. Roocroft's climactic top A in "Zueignung" was typical of her immaculate placing of notes whilst the song, "Morgen", was ravishingly soft. The final song, "Cäcilie", encapsulated all of the fine qualities and the full range of her voice - the lustrous top notes, a rich middle register and the broad range of tone colours and dynamic contrasts. Lintu and the Orchestra of Opera North were sympathetic collaborators, weaving a gorgeous magic carpet of sound for the singer; sensitive to every nuance and never submerging the voice in Strauss's lush orchestration.
We would of course have expected nothing less, the Orchestra of Opera North is as well schooled in the operas of Richard Strauss as it is in the symphonies of Gustav Mahler. The Orchestra received ecstatic reviews for performances of the mighty Resurrection Symphony and the gargantuan Third Symphony, both conducted by the then Opera North music director Steven Sloane in this hall a few years ago. Tonight was the turn of Mahler 1, the so called Titan, here performed in four movements as is usually the case - omitting the Blumine movement.
Hannu Lintu infused Mahler's evocation of nature in the symphony's first movement with striking, not to say strident colours, before unleashing the underlying elemental power in the huge orchestral tutti with those splendid whooping horns. The second movement scherzo was jaunty in mood, contrasting with the poise and elegance of the Trio, underlined by some subtle rubato. The grim irony of the third movement with its funereal dirge declaimed by a double bass was brilliantly conveyed. Lintu duly unleashed pandemonium in the opening bars of the final tumultuous movement. The heavenly melody for the strings in the central section of this movement was, for all its sadness, not overloaded with pathos. Lintu's measured approach, building up to the shattering tutti and the final triumphal pages of the score pinned us to the edge of our seats. The eight-strong horn section rose to its feet to play over the orchestral storm, just as the composer directed. An enthralled audience responded with a tumult of applause. Perhaps Opera North have already invited Lintu to return, and quickly.
Photographs of Amanda Roocroft (c) Mark Harr