REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on Hallé Choir & Orchestra/Sir Mark Elder: Verdi Requiem, York Minster, October 29

Mezzo-soprano Alice Coote. “Superb solo interventions“. Picture: JiyangChen

IT is some time since York Minster’s nave was filled for a professional concert, but a full house for Ryedale Festival’s promotion of Verdi’s Requiem, doubtless encouraged by the first-class array of performers, was amply rewarded.

Although Verdi’s Catholic faith left him early and his Requiem for Alessandro Manzoni is unashamedly operatic, it is also an act of reverence, as we were reminded by the hushed aura of its opening.

But the forthright entry of the choral basses at ‘Te decet’ left no doubt that this was to be an evening that left none of the terrors of death unexplored, as Verdi intended. The soloists confirmed this with a forceful Kyrie that was the polar opposite of the usual grovel.

This was to be the essence of Sir Mark Elder’s approach. Accordingly, the Dies Irae opened with a fearsome attack from both choir and orchestra. Soon afterwards, the trumpets were thrilling at ‘Tuba mirum’, with the four on stage in a controlled crescendo and the four off-stage fanfare trumpets joining in from the side aisles. Indeed, the Hallé’s brass covered themselves with glory throughout, returning majestically in the Sanctus.

‘Liber scriptus’ marked the first of mezzo-soprano Alice Coote’s superb solo interventions, a full-throated blast that raised the drama to a new level and culminated in a spine-tingling high A flat –extending the determination she had brought to Orfeo in Huddersfield last week.

Sir Mark Elder, conductor of the Hallé Orchestra. Picture: Hannah Knox

There were no weaknesses among the soloists. The soprano Natalya Romaniw was the only one to employ any operatic swoops, mostly early on and tastefully, to theatrical effect. She also had ample capacity to soar above the chorus at full pelt and still be heard. Her final high B flat was a couple of shades louder than the absurd triple piano Verdi demands but beautifully sustained nonetheless.

In the tenor solo after what was a succulent soprano-alto duet at ‘Recordare’, Thomas Atkins announced himself with noble resonance and shaped its ending stylishly. He sounds ready for a worldwide career as a Verdi tenor. James Platt’s bass was portentous at the ‘Confutatis’ and added gravitas to the solo ensembles.

While individually distinctive, the soloists also maintained a pleasing balance and blend, which is far from a given in this work. The Hallé Choir was impressive at both ends of the dynamic spectrum. ‘Hosanna in excelsis’ in the Sanctus built to a huge climax, but even more imposing was the extremely quiet opening to the closing Responsory, a magical effect heard far too rarely from large choirs. The orchestral strings exhibited similar restraint.

It crystallised the loving care with which Elder had shaped this five-star Requiem. It had been given in memory of Richard Shephard, a valuable friend of both York Minster and the Ryedale Festival until his death last year.

Footnote: I listened to much of this performance through gritted teeth because of two roaming photographers, one of whom prowled around my bay in the side aisle (where the sound incidentally is best of all) like a capricious cat-burglar, blocking my view and distracting many others with his antics.

Who authorised this? Were the performers asked for their permission? It was totally beyond the pale. The solution – if photographs really are essential – is to take them during rehearsals or hire a professional with telephoto lenses.

Review by Martin Dreyer

REVIEW: Leeds Lieder Festival, Day 1:Wagner and the Wesendoncks /Alice Coote, Leeds Town Hall, 17/6/2021

Alice Coote: “Sustained a near-miraculously quiet intensity throughout”

FOUR days of wall-to-wall song got into full swing in front of live, if socially distanced, audiences. It was only two months later than the usual time for this festival, a minor miracle amongst the pandemic’s disruption.

Apart from the plethora of marvellous masterclasses and talks, the lunchtime and evening recitals were the backbone of the festivities and will form the basis of my reactions here.

The history of German poetry would not likely have been any different without the name of Mathilde Wesendonck. She can thank Wagner that we know about her at all.

Her husband Otto was a wealthy silk merchant who supported Wagner financially. He built a small house adjoining his grandiose villa above Lake Zurich, which he invited Wagner and his wife Minna to occupy. Mathilde became Wagner’s muse and probably much more, eventually causing the Wagners to separate.

While working on Tristan And Isolde, Wagner set five of Mathilde’s poems for female voice and piano, and they became much the best-known of his Lieder. In this programme, entitled The View From the Villa and built around those songs, they were touchingly sung by mezzo-soprano Susan Bickley.

Bass-baritone Matthew Brook sang and played a tolerant Otto, with a mini-clad Victoria Newlyn playing a flighty Minna (who was a successful actress in her own right). Iain Burnside, who had devised the programme, provided the sensitive accompaniments and linking music, all from Wagner. The songs were delivered in new translations by Jeremy Sams.

It was an entertaining insight into an unusual ménage, even if not all the spoken English repartee emerged with complete clarity. It was fascinating to hear the famous Prelude to Act 3 of Tristan in its original setting, along with three other Wagner lieder. Wagner was present through his music alone.

The evening brought a recital by mezzo-soprano Alice Coote, whose star is now fully in the ascendant, accompanied by Christian Blackshaw. Her programme, entitled A Spiritual Solstice, dealt with love, yearning and loneliness, and was centred round Mahler’s five settings of Friedrich Rückert, which date from 1900-02.

Coote felt them deeply and sustained a near-miraculously quiet intensity throughout, from the opening delicately perfumed love-song to the loneliness of Um Mitternacht (At Midnight) and Ich Bin Der Welt (I Am Lost To The World). She clearly felt them with every fibre of her being and sustained a wonderful control of the quietest tones imaginable. She held her audience rapt.

These were the emeralds of the evening. Pearls surrounding them came mainly from songs by Schumann, Strauss and Tchaikovsky. Three songs from Myrthen, the collection he presented to his bride Clara in 1840, were perfectly balanced by another three from Richard Strauss’s Op 27, which he gave to his new wife Pauline in 1894.

The first examples of her curiously intimate mouth-tone came in Schumann’s Meine Rose – a setting by a lovelorn Nikolaus Lenau, and in the self-delusion of Schumann’s Allerseelen (All Souls’ Day).

Coote was capable of reaching romantic heights too, as in the impassioned restraint of Tchaikovsky’s None But The Lonely Heart. Serenity reappeared in Strauss’s Ruhe, Meine Seele and in a beautifully hushed Morgen!

Somewhere in this carefully devised programme there was room for a touch more variety, even perhaps something a little boisterous. But her supreme artistry was undeniable. Blackshaw was neatly restrained when supporting the voice, but was inclined to over-egg the piano when on his own, sometimes disrupting a song’s equilibrium. It was an error on the right side.                                                

Review by Martin Dreyer