Leeds Town Hall is a magnificent venue. Its richly decorated grand interior, with improving sayings of Victorian moral earnestness emblazoned on the upper reaches of the walls, has the audience looking towards the mighty organ pipes, resplendently painted white with colourful detail. With the orchestra in place, centrally at the apex above her colleagues, framed by the organ and surrounded by her glistening instruments, presided timpanist Elsa Bradley like some lone Wagnerian Norn or Gothic princess, underpinning the climatic moments with her celestial thunder.

Jac van Steen © Ross Cohen
Jac van Steen
© Ross Cohen

Before this imposing backdrop the orchestra conjured the presence, as though descending from heaven, of the golden knight, Lohengrin. Once the late-comers had done with their stumbling and grunting, the magic of the music wove its spell, and Jac van Steen showed himself to be the master of dramatic pacing, the arch of the Prelude beautifully shaped, enabling the climactic moment of revelation to blaze out in all its ecstatic glory. The strings were crystal clear, the woodwind well-blended and secure, and the brass resplendent.

It was then as if Lohengrin's swan had headed off to the Finnish realm of the dead, Tuonela, where things turned very dark indeed. After a preparatory abrupt, sombre rumination from the low strings there is a cello solo, the first of several in the Fourth Symphony, and Jessica Burroughs’ controlled but deeply expressive presentation of the theme was spellbinding, as she was in all her solos, fitting perfectly with van Steen's slow, sonorous and eloquent way with this work.  This wasn't the thin-sounding, astringent, icy interpretation that some ensembles aspire to for Sibelius, especially in this symphony; the Opera North orchestra in this venue achieve a wonderfully full, rounded late-Romantic sound, and it made for a very powerful performance indeed.

I have heard lighter, brighter, more urgent performances of the second movement, but this was not what van Steen and his orchestra were after, but rather a somewhat softer melancholy dance that led naturally to the slow movement where the glories of this orchestra were on full display, the intermingling and interchange of woodwind, brass and strings so beautifully accomplished. Maestro van Steen's ability to shape the structure so that the slow uncovering of the overwhelming string theme that crowns the movement, only to be downed by, as Andrew Fairley's excellent programme note would have it, ''malevolent brass'', was displayed to shattering effect. The brass, malevolent or not, were magnificent.

Come the finale we are dealing with the strangest of music, some of which Sibelius may have originally composed for a projected tone poem from the Gothic narrative of Edgar Alan Poe, Lohengrin's swan apparently now transmogrified into The Raven. The movement stutters enigmatically to an uncompromising end where screeching flutes call desperately upwards, in vain – ''Nevermore'' quoth the oboe, repeatedly.  It was  wonderfully characterised woodwind playing of great dramatic presence.  A few repeated desolate A minor chords and the music just stops. A tremendous performance, the orchestra responding eloquently to van Steen’s inspired conception.

During the interval we have to surmise that the raven metamorphosed into the mysterious man in black who, no less the stuff of legend than Lohengrin, commissioned the Mozart Requiem – though this was perhaps one metamorphosis too far: this was very definitely, as the football commentator might have it, a programme “of two halves”. The orchestra was diminished by a few desks and a measure of vibrato, and maybe because of the contrast with what had gone before, the opening of the Requiem sounded rather jaunty, with little of the sombre unease one might expect. And to begin with the choir sounded awfully far away, way back above and behind the orchestra, and lacking in focus and rhythmic security, the higher voices failing to cut through.

However, with the Kyrie fugue, things improved immensely, and indeed all five fugues (plus two repeated) in this edition of the Requiem were excellently done, exciting, energetic and serving well to establish the structural framework of the piece. Especially noteworthy is the Amen fugue, which Dr. Benjamin-Gunnar Cohrs has elaborated very successfully from sketches of Mozart that Sußmayr had ignored, (Sußmayr providing instead his own grand but rather unambitious Amen). This new edition also spices the orchestration with an increased but thoroughly Baroque use of trumpets and drums: it helps to maintain the dramatic colour and vitality of the work through to the end. Dr Cohrs has extended the final cadence and provided an unambiguous major chord, that the bereaved might be in receipt of some solace come the close. The two Opera North concerts, of which this was the second, constitute the edition’s UK première. 

Bass Matthew Brook matched the 'wondrous sound' of Blair Sinclair's trombone in the Tuba mirum, calling us to the resurrection and the last judgement, his colleagues expanding on the awful process, and all four soloists sounded especially fine in the Recordare, pleading for “a place among the sheep”. I had the feeling that the performance improved and became more fluent as it progressed, the Offertorium coming off particularly well.

I confess I was assailed by the thought that in this great bombastic Victorian hall, as a follow-up to Wagner and Sibelius, both venue and context made irresistible the unforgiveable sin of longing for a mighty and sombre Romantic performance of the Requiem, with slower tempi and larger forces. Nevertheless, it was an intriguing and thoroughly enjoyable concert.