Opera North Orchestra – Huddersfield Town Hall
Conductor: Howard Shelley
There was a strong commemorative element in this all Beethoven concert. It was originally scheduled for September 2020 to celebrate the 250and anniversary of the birth of Beethoven and also the 70th birthday of Howard Shelleyand birthday. Like many at the time, it was postponed, but fortunately not cancelled. And now it has coincided with David Greed’s last gig as conductor of Opera North: he was appointed when Opera North was founded in 1979. He is now due to appear as a soloist at the next Huddersfield gig, but his tenure as conductor ended after just 43 years!
His last concert was well chosen. The orchestra’s association with Howard Shelley, particularly in their acclaimed recordings of Beethoven’s Complete Works for Piano and Orchestra, was one of his major accomplishments outside of the opera company.
Shelley became famous for integrating his performances while conducting from the keyboard, somewhat more difficult with the full orchestra required for Beethoven than for a small chamber ensemble. In the performance of Piano Concerto No. 4, the importance of knowing your orchestra was evident, Shelley nodding and looking far more often than jumping to her feet to point to an orchestral climax. His authoritative interpretation shifted from the elaborate cadenza at the end of the first movement to an expressive and deliberately hesitant reading of the soft piano part of the extraordinary second movement: aggressively paced strings contrast with the soothing sounds of the piano. Orchestrally, Beethoven held back trumpet and timpani until the final rondo, bringing an exuberant finale to a work that often pursues the unexpected.
The purely orchestral pieces were also noteworthy. The Opening: Leonore No. 3 has a checkered history. Beethoven’s attempts to find an overture to his opera Leonore (later changed to Fidelio) foundered on the problem of balance: this was simply too overwhelming for an opera that begins in a fairly light vein. But it remains a glorious concert work in its own right.
Howard Shelley is one of those bandleaders so adept at building momentum that it (wrongly) seems like he’s going to a faster tempo than usual, but there was no sign of this at the beginning of the overture: slow, solemn, dramatically tense. Beethoven’s sense of theater is there in the off-stage trumpet calls that echo the Minister’s arrival. Ultimately, a joyful performance, but few overtures bring so much drama to the audience.
And then there is Beethoven’s Fifth. The challenge here is for a conductor and an orchestra to try to make the audience feel like they are hearing it for the first time. Well, maybe that’s a bit too much to ask, but Shelley made it sound fresh, right from the blazing horn figures after the familiar “Victory-V” motif. In fact, overall, the most striking impression of this performance, besides its juxtaposition of ferocious intensity and melodic grace, was the impact of the different sections of the orchestra: the beautiful woodwind melodies, bassoon in the lead, in the second movement; the leaping fugue for cellos and double basses from the Trio of the third movement; then (Beethoven again keeping his powder dry) the impact of the unreleased trombones during the transition from the Scherzo to the Finale. As the last movement shoved you back into your seat again and again, between softer passages that still maintained the irresistible momentum, it was tempting to reflect on the feelings of the 1808 audience – chances are they were horrified by the ferocity of it all!
Reviewed on January 27and 2022