The Orchestra of Opera North with Marc-Andre Hamelin

On Thursday 19 September, Huddersfield Town Hall played host to two debuts in one triumphant concert.

This was the first concert of Kirklees Concert Season 2019/20. It was also the UK début for the wonderful conductor Ruth Reinhardt—more on her later—and simultaneously the Opera North début for Marc-André Hamelin, one of the finest pianists around. With orchestra, soloist, and conductor all on fine form, this Kirklees Season got off to a flying start.

Anton Webern, Passacaglia, Op. 1 (1908)
Franz Schubert, Symphony #5 in Bb (1816)


Ludwig van Beethoven, Piano Concerto #5 in Eb, Op. 73 (1809)

The first half of the concert was for orchestra and conductor without piano. The orchestra—which I have heard many times—sounded exceptionally rich as it tuned up. I concluded that Huddersfield Town Hall, in addition to being visually beautiful, was an agreeable acoustic space too.

Then to great applause walked out Ruth Reinhardt for her United Kingdom début. Refreshingly young, charismatic and beautiful—though I probably shouldn’t dwell on this since my other half will probably read this review—I sensed great expectation amongst the Huddersfieldian audience to see what was in store.

Webern, Passacaglia

No disappointment was had! First was the only piece on the programme which I didn’t know—Webern’s Passacaglia. What I knew about Webern before the concert could have been written in full on the back of a postage stamp—with space left over for a shopping list and a longish poem. But I did know that he belongs to the Second Viennese School—a fancy name for an often intolerable species of formulaic composition built on ‘tone rows’ (don’t ask) by equally intolerable composers.

I was delighted then to hear that this piece, although influenced by Webern’s teacher and founder of the Second Viennese School, Arnold Schoenberg, had something more like a late Romantic temperament to it, and that it benefited from being written using both the head and the heart. Since I didn’t know the piece beforehand, it was impossible to compare the Reinhardt-Orchestra of Opera North version to anything else. But the whole thing sounded very well, delightfully mad, and yet well controlled by the superb musicians.

Schubert, Symphony #5

Next was a piece which I know very well, and which was probably the main reason for my agreeing to venture out all that way to Huddersfield. Schubert’s Fifth Symphony is as delightful a half-hour of music as exists. I have heard and enjoyed it many times in different versions. Could Reinhardt and the Orchestra of Opera North together find something new in what for me is an old warhorse?

Yes! Actually, I was amazed at all the new insights this performance brought to my understanding of this piece. Other recordings and live performances seemed generally to have played it as half an hour of interweaving pretty tunes. But Reinhardt and the Orchestra of Opera North brought out that dramatic element which we see in Schubert’s very best works—the songs and last pieces—by finding stark contrasts of colour and volume everywhere. Orchestra, conductor, and concert hall conspired together to give an unusual clarity to the performance, highlighting all the beautiful moments of contrary motion between the instruments. My one complaint would be that the balance failed at points, with the French horns in particular sounding a bit too loudly; but this is a minor point.

Beethoven, Emperor Concerto, with Marc-André Hamelin

After an interval of leg-stretching and Magnum-getting, seats were returned to for Marc-André Hamelin’s performance of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto. I had the good luck to see Hamelin in a solo recital in Harrogate a number of years ago. Perhaps the most wonderful thing—or the unique selling point—of Hamelin’s offering as a pianist is not just that he is enormously good at piano (though that he is) but also that he has tended throughout his illustrious career to show a great curiosity in finding out less well known or less often played pieces, and applying the master’s touch to them.

In Harrogate, for example, though the best part of a decade ago, I can still recall his interesting choice to programme a Haydn Sonata (these wonderful Sonatas often being seen as inferior intermediate pieces which prepare a student for playing Beethoven) and playing it as though it were the best piece in the canon, and convincing you with his performance that it might be! He paired this with one of the weirder piano offerings from that underrated genius Villa-Lobos, which ended with a drop of the fist down onto the bass register piano keyboard. (I know.) Anyway, my point being that such selections are great—distinctive and memorable.

I was a bit nonplussed then to see that he would be playing one of the most overplayed pieces in the whole piano repertoire. He did a fantastic job at it, assuredly: it was great to see his concerto side in addition to having seen the more intimate, solo recital side, and the interaction between him, orchestra, and conductor was second to none—which is especially impressive in the Emperor Concerto, where there are so many delicate moments during which, if one thing be messed up, the whole thing topples.

It can be easy to lose the plot in a Beethoven Concerto, particularly those twenty- or twenty-five-minute-long first movements. Here this was true, apart from a few moments. Beethoven is partly to blame: in the Emperor Concerto, as in almost all his other pieces, there are bars I wish he had cancelled, or never written. Perhaps this vast piece, with the added complications of a soloist, make it harder to bring off than Schubert’s Symphony or Webern’s ten-minute Passacaglia. I wouldn’t know since I haven’t conducted any of them. At any rate, it didn’t quite have the exciting variety of the pieces in the first half.

Nevertheless, there were gripping moments, and once the Concerto rattled and rocketed to its thrilling conclusion there was a huge peal of applause from the Huddersfieldian audience, with a few standing ovations. Marc-André was ‘applauded out’ from backstage three times; this is clear code for, ‘We enjoyed your performance and would very much like an encore if you would like to give one.’ However, Hamelin declined and went away. This left a slightly bitter taste: everyone knows that a Yorkshireman wants everything he can get for his money, and I certainly wouldn’t want to disappoint a room full of them. But I haven’t played the Emperor Concerto; I can only imagine that it is tiring.

This aside, this was an exceptionally great concert, full of charming and exciting moments. The programme was a bit lopsided and odd: why two long pieces from the early nineteenth-century, and then ten minutes of Webern tacked on to the front? It is obviously better when a programme has some sort of symmetry or coherence to it in which one piece speaks to another in some meaningful way. It would have been better to have Marc-André bust out one of his spicier pieces, which would have gone well with the Webern, and which then would have made the late classical/early romantic Schubert into a sort of gemstone centre-piece. Apart from this, there was just the occasional balance issue. Overall, though, this was a nearly faultless performance.

Ruth Reinhardt stands out as a revelation. It is exciting to see someone so young already doing fantastic work and to know that the best of their career is likely still ahead of them. Reading through the performers’ biographical details is usually a boring process consisting of lists of conservatories, prizes and collaborators. I was amused, envious and delighted to see, then, humbly written at the bottom of Reinhardt’s biography, the following: ‘By the age of 17 she had composed and conducted an opera, for and performed by the children and young people of her home town’. Some people are so gifted it makes you sick.

And she is not the only composer on stage that night: I was delighted to learn from the programme notes that Marc-André Hamelin has published his own set of Études for piano with Edition Peters. This had passed me by completely. Now to get a copy and see whether I can play them without injury either to my hands or to the ears of others. (N.B. Having checked his website, it seems that he has composed far more than just these Études!  I shall be busy.)

Many thanks go to Ruth Reinhardt, the Orchestra of Opera North and its staff, Marc-André Hamelin, and Kirklees Concert Season and Huddersfield Town Hall for an unforgettable evening.


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