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Review: Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra + Leeds Festival Chorus

16 March 2016
Review: Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra + Leeds Festival Chorus
The considerable collective of orchestra, large chorus, and five soloists gathered this evening to play two behemoths of the concert repertory. Performance and pieces were of mixed quality albeit with much to recommend them, resulting in a worthwhile but ultimately less memorable evening than is usual from the Leeds International Concert Season.

Mendelssohn, Violin Concerto

Over the gentle undulation of the orchestral opening enters the solo violin’s exposition of the melody, instantly signalling soloist Leticia Morena’s facility on her instrument, if also an exaggerated vibrato. The louder sections of the orchestra initially drown out the violin, but this is quickly remedied, and by the end of the movement the opposite seems to be true. The control in Morena’s phrases is without fault, if very tried and tested by violinistic tradition, and the fullness of the instrument’s sonority—especially on the lower strings—is deeply enjoyable, the sweetness of tone being exploited to the full in the lyrical second theme and cadenza, in which the violin radiates around and fills the hall.

As this cadenza closes, I conclude that Morena is slightly inclined to exaggerated expressions—of vibrato, rubato—but am, overall, impressed as the movement crashes towards its end. The lyrical and melodic second movement requires similar dolce expressions to the second subject of the previous movement, and Morena again carries them off superbly. The high point of the movement, and perhaps the concerto as a whole, is in the minor section in which the violin plays a number of double stops around a pedal on the open A string. To this Morena does great justice, partly through her love of volume, and partly as a result of the near impossibility of executing quick-changing double stops with vibrato.

In the bridge to the third movement, the soloist’s great sensitivity of expression was unfortunately blemished by the small error of her bow’s hitting a neighbouring string. Though small, this very basic error clearly affected the soloist’s confidence as the music progressed into the highly demanding final movement, composed principally of very rapid semiquavers.

As this movement of unsurpassed wit and grace began, Morena was dogged by intonation errors and even a very apparent inability to execute one of the runs, on which she simply had to stop and re-join the orchestra at the next bar. A shame, but these semiquaver passages ask such virtuosity as to stupefy whenever they are successful. She regains her confidence enough to play the rest of the movement without howlers, but the spirit never quite recuperates until the very end, whereat the union of violin and orchestra communicates the genius, beauty, and joy of this most brilliant and ingenious of concerti with power and aplomb.

Tippett, A Child of Our Time

The first thing one notices in this performance is that the chorus are in black tie, and the orchestra white. The resulting dissonance and confusion is a fitting framework for the rest of the evening. The first notes of Tippett’s piece spell deep tragedy and beauty spelt out with long, dolorous notes and fine discords. The balance both within and between the orchestra and chorus is perfect. This is a credit owing to the excellent conducting of Simon Wright, whose comprehension of the one-hour piece’s architecture ensured that it was communicated with clarity and interest throughout, even at the bottom-hurting final minutes which are the con of every concert. (The reviewer always recommends exploiting the twenty-minute interval for alleviating seating discomfort with a slight walk.)

The problem with oratorio in a language we understand is that we can make out the often woefully bad poetry of which it is composed. So far as I know, Tippett originally approached T. S. Eliot for a libretto but Eliot, not wanting poetry to swallow music or vice-versa, and not knowing what musical crimes his poems would later be subjected to, advised Tippett to write his own. Therefore we are subjected to a text which oscillates between quite good lines—

Man has measured the heavens—

That end in disappointment:

Man has measured the heavens with a telescope

And those which are simply bad:

Chorus: What of the boy then? Bass: He too is outcast.

Coexistent—and therefore incongruous—with such plainness are phrases which are not too objectionable, but slightly silly in their gnomic pretences:

*Patience is born in the tension of loneliness. The garden lies beyond the desert.

There are hundreds of such examples. Suffice to say, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau himself could not make ‘telescope’ into euphonious musical utterance.

Any acquainted with this piece will know it is peculiar for its use of spirituals as summative choral pieces. Some think this a masterstroke on Tippett’s part, universalising the particular in his commentary on oppression. (A Child of Our Time is about Kristallnacht.) But to my mind, these always sound like appropriations by a western intellectual, and never naturalised in the way the Volksmusik is in, say, Gershwin, Ives, or Bartók.

Soprano Rebecca Evans is to be praised for moving delivery and fine negotiation of the piece’s demands for elegiac whispering and plangent wailing. Alto Jennifer Johnston deserves credit for her clarity and dolorosa expression, tenor Ben Johnson for his moving gentleness and quietness, and bass David Wilson-Johnson delivered all sections with evenness and beauty of tone and depth of feeling.

However one may feel this piece falls short, one leaves the concert hall with a secure and lofty impression of the depth of Tippett’s humanity and sense of moral and political justice. For more information on coming concerts, see leedsconcertseason.com. A number of discounts are available, including £5 under-26 tickets in the week before the concert.

By Charles Eager
Charles is a Volunteer Writer for Leeds Living, covering topics such as culture vulture, eat/drink, music/dance and city living.