What is a symphony? It’s always been a very elastic term, with no fixed rules about its form or content. It can be a ten-minute piece for just a few instruments, or a monumental work of an hour or more in length, for a large orchestra. Royal Northern Sinfonia, directed by Conductor Laureate Thomas Zehetmair, explored both ends of the symphonic spectrum, drawing their examples from Zehetmair’s native Austria.

Thomas Zehetmair
© Pablo Faccinetto

For an example of a short symphony, a safe programming choice might have been Haydn, but instead, Zehetmair gave us an exquisite little jewel by Webern: the Op.21 Symphony, which  is just ten minutes long, and scored for an orchestra that’s little more than a chamber ensemble – strings with harp, clarinet, bass clarinet and two horns. It is very carefully structured, full of architectural elegance, and although the casual listener probably needs to have the score in hand to appreciate the full complexity of Webern’s symmetries, this graceful performance gave a clear sense of the structural bones. Each instrument contributes their part in sparse fragments, yet RNS joined everything up seamlessly, with a clear beat running through the disjointed parts. Zehetmair carefully unfurled the first movement from its microscopic opening, before disappearing back to where it came from, whilst in the quirky second movement the introversion gave way to an odd little waltz with a playful ending.

Webern was part of the Second Viennese School, whose spartan compositional style emerged as a reaction against the expressive excesses of late Romantic composers such as Mahler. As a chamber orchestra, RNS is too small to give us the full Mahler symphony experience, but we had a taster in the form of the Adagietto from his Fifth. Zehetmair kept the opening very still, with barely a ripple of vibrato, then allowed the strings sudden surges of passion that came from nowhere in shuddering gasps, before dying back down. This was a struggle between dark and light, but as the absolute calm of the opening returned, the players brought with it a sense of peace and resolution and, in this version as least, the light had won.

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach wrote a number of symphonies, but tonight we heard instead one of his oboe concertos (in B flat major), with principal oboe Steven Hudson taking the solo. The outer movements were delightfully sunny, with Hudson giving the oboe part an easy fluidity, and playing an amusingly flirtatious game with the orchestra in the third. In contrast, the middle movement was deeply expressive, with lovely subtle shadings of dynamics, and with all the embellishments tenderly enhancing the underlying musical line.

The second half was given over to one of the biggest symphonies that a chamber orchestra can play: Schubert’s Ninth, “The Great”. It lasts pretty much an hour, so you might expect that the orchestra would be tempted to pace themselves carefully, to take it as a marathon, not a sprint, but Zehetmair and RNS did away with any caution, giving us an absolutely exhilarating performance, that was charged with adrenalin right the way through. I don’t normally approve of applause between movements (I find it breaks my concentration), but on this occasion the little outbreaks of clapping felt entirely justified, giving a sense that the audience were getting behind the orchestra and urging them on in their efforts.

The opening horn solo was expansive without being slow, leading the way for surges of energy from the rest of the orchestra. This energy was joyful and excited in the first movement, with seductive woodwind passages adding heat to the mixture, then a slightly darker undercurrent added a note of foreboding to the oboe and clarinet passages that open the second movement. There was a certain wildness to this movement, that eased off only with Zehetmair’s daringly long pause in the middle, and followed by string pizzicato that fell like fresh rain after a storm. The third movement gave the players a chance to relax the mood a little, with a warm-toned flute taking the lead in a lilting dance, and the whole woodwind section creating a rich, multi-layered texture – the acoustics in Hall One at Sage Gateshead meant we could hear each instrument’s contribution to the overall effect. The dizzying excitement took over again in the last movement, which took its impetus from the massive dynamic contrasts that Zehetmair created in the opening bars. The strings and oboe added jittery anticipation, the brass pushed onwards, and eventually the whole thing was swept up in a wave of enthusiasm, marked not just by the playing but by the broad smiles of the players.