Under the baton of Karl-Heinz Steffens, the Hallé Orchestra opened their concert at Leeds Town Hall with the overture of Gioacchino Rossini’s lesser known comic opera The Silken Ladder (La scala di seta) from 1812 – a so-called farsa which is all about love, jealousy, intrigues and confusions. After a concise introduction, the woodwinds indulged in beautiful operatic cantilenas until the strings took over with their jolly and rapid figures, played with a lot of wit and esprit, even if initially not perfectly coordinated. This buoyant and cheery overture invoked the jovial character of the one-act opera, yet it did not lack dramatic effects, vividly portrayed by Steffens, anticipating the plot twists to come.

Jack Liebeck © Chris Dunlop
Jack Liebeck
© Chris Dunlop

Highlight of the first half of the concert was the performance of Antonín Dvořák’s Violin Concerto in A minor from 1879, rendered by British violinist Jack Liebeck. Right at the outset of the concerto, after a short fanfare-like opening of the orchestra, the violinist gave an expressive solo entry into what was to become an excellent interpretation of Dvořák’s piece. Liebeck, always playing with a hundred per cent of energy and tension, proved to have a deep understanding of this music. With a sound that is considerably versatile and of a beautiful sonority in the lower register, he called forth a rich soundscape which met the challenges of the concerto.

In accord with Steffens, Liebeck finely balanced out all transitions, not least the fluent passage from the first to the second movement which, set in F major, seemed to emanate peacefulness. For the first time that evening, the orchestra raised to its full and wonderfully clear symphonic sound. Liebeck’s musical strength lies in the detail, shaping, if not at times celebrating, the individual characteristics of Dvořák’s music. In the third movement which starts with a gentle and playful furiant – a traditional Bohemian dance with a distinctive change of metre – Liebeck was at his best. He seemed to set exactly the right tone: cheerful and delicate, yet not without undertones of teasing and irony. He maintained his energy from the first to the last note, although occasionally he went over the top and some high-register passages came out a little too tense and forced.

Following a chronological order in the evening's programme, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ A London Symphony was performed in the second half of the concert. The music seemed to be rising from the depths, quite slowly, as if the city was only just about to wake up, and you could hear the chimes of Big Ben as though from a distance. The extraordinarily atmospheric opening was followed by a sudden dissonant and loud interjection: A London Symphony is the portrait of a modern city (London in 1914) with all its liveliness, vigour, beauty as well as its darker sides. This rich, ambiguous soundscape on the threshold of modernism was vividly conveyed by the orchestra.

The second movement started equally gloomy as the first, turning into a melancholic yet charming string sound. There was more than one magical moment in this slow movement, and the Hallé Orchestra enchanted Leeds Town Hall with their bright and warm sound. In the third movement, cheerful and darker sections alternated or rather turned into each other, not unlike in Mahler’s symphonies. Similarly, this ambivalence permeated the fourth and final movement which appeared sometimes march-like and light, sometimes in grand symphonic gestures. Towards the end, the music calmed down, until, over a dissonant drone of the orchestra, the harp intonated the chimes of Big Ben again, one of several allusions to the beginning of the symphony, suggesting the end of this musical journey through London. After a contemplative solo of the principal violinist, Steffens let the once massive orchestral sound fade out into a breathtaking yet almost inaudible ending.

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