Opera North seems to be in a critical state of grace at the moment. Riding high on the success of its Ring, the company's profile has been transformed during Richard Farnes' ten years at its helm. More specifically, its orchestra is being seriously cited as Britain's finest working band, a claim which may well be vindicated when they bring their Wagner epic to the capital at the end of the month. This orchestra's greatness lies in its genuine sense of teamwork and the willingness of its sections to listen and respond to each other. Comparisons with the Vienna Staatsoper Orchester may draw metropolitan sneers but anyone who has heard this orchestra in the concert hall – where it keeps to a very busy schedule, quite apart from its operatic activities – will not sniff.

Orchestra of Opera North © Tom Arber
Orchestra of Opera North
© Tom Arber

Mahler's quasi-operatic Eighth Symphony was a suitable work to bring its current concert season to an end. Its “Symphony of a Thousand” nickname points to its notoriety as an almighty guzzler of musical resources. Indeed, the orchestra can seem like an overshadowed and vulnerable element in the great wash of sound created by double chorus, children's choir, eight soloists and an organ. The work itself occupies a disputed position in the symphonic repertoire. Is it more of a cantata, or mini-opera, based on the final scene of Goethe's Faust, with a prelude, based on a Latin hymn, tacked on to the beginning?

Amongst musicians, its quality is similarly disputed, with some maintaining that all its sound and fury signifies, if not nothing, then considerably less than Mahler would have had us believe. I'll admit that in the wrong hands  it can come across as windily rhetorical, with the relentless climaxes – particularly the opening Veni creator spiritus section – becoming wearyingly intense. Fortunately, this was not the case in this performance under conductor David Hill.

The forces, which almost overcrowded the platform at Leeds Town Hall, launched into the opening section with an appropriate sense of abandon. The co-ordination of the Leeds Philharmonic Chorus under Chorus Master Richard Wilberforce, the Leeds Festival Chorus under Simon Wright and the Bradford Catholic Youth Choir, under Musical Director Thomas Leech, together with Hill, was something to marvel at and the Hymn, requesting inspiration from the Deity, had a force that was sustained throughout its near half-hour length. Unfortunately it was also in this part that some problems became evident: in a work with such a wide dynamic range it will never be easy – or even possible – to secure an ideal balance between solo voices and chorus/orchestra. Katherine Broderick's soprano frequently overwhelmed the other female singers in a way that called attention to this; and it was difficult to hear the three male soloists at all. Admittedly, the nature of the work and its status as a rarely performed crowd-puller (the Town Hall was gratifyingly full) means it tends to be given in large public spaces, with less than ideal acoustics.

The second section begins with a testing Adagio, in which the orchestra depicts a rocky woodland landscape with the Chorus impersonating a group of anchorites clambering towards their sanctuary. The challenge here, which few conductors meet (or even seem aware of), is to create an appropriate sense of stress and endurance and not succumb to the temptation to make the music warm and syrupy, a misreading of the composer's intentions. Hill, his orchestra and  the combined choruses achieved this with an impressive rigour: if you closed your eyes, it was easy to imagine yourself there, in the ravine, with the monks.  

Andrew Foster-Williams, as Pater Ecstaticus, delivered his Ewiger Wonnebrand solo in a fine, if not especially powerful, baritone but I could have done with more power and commitment from bass-baritone Michael Druiett, whose account of Pater Profundus' longer solo was somewhat leaden and effortful; and Peter Wedd, in the Heldentenor role of Doctor Marianus, was frequently inaudible. More importantly though, Hill and his forces were scrupulous in keeping the 'narrative' of Goethe's text moving and there were no moments of indulgence, lingering over detail, or times when the performance seemed to hang fire. The fast speeds chosen certainly helped (the performance finished ten minutes earlier than advertised) and the conclusion, with the magnificent tutti reprise of the Veni theme had exactly the uplifiting impact one hoped for.

Despite the mentioned flaws in balance, another notable achievement for this over-achieving opera orchestra, I think it needs to call itself something less modest! 

****1