Clara Schumann was not one of the composers on tonight’s programme by Royal Northern Sinfonia, but as is so often the case when her husband Robert and their friend Johannes Brahms appear in a concert together, she is there too in spirit, as the woman who shaped, controlled and inspired the works of these two men. Robert Schumann turned to symphonic writing at her encouragement in 1841, just after their marriage, including the first version of what eventually became his Fourth Symphony. Brahms was nurtured and encouraged in his early years as a composer by the Schumanns; his First Piano Concerto was a response to Robert’s suicide attempt, but he wrote that the slow movement was a portrait of Clara.

Lars Vogt © Giorgia Bertazzi
Lars Vogt
© Giorgia Bertazzi

Before the entanglements of love and friendship between Brahms and the Schumanns, RNS began with the man whose music exerted such an influenced on them: Beethoven. The Coriolan Overture introduces a story about difficult choices between war and peace, and conductor Lars Vogt emphasised this underlying dilemma throughout; the big chords that interject throughout the overture were punchy, with daringly long pauses between them that suggested Coriolan’s indecisiveness, whilst the contrasting lyrical passages came across as a tentative suggestion that there could be an alternative course of action.

If Clara Schumann’s ghost had been hanging around in Sage Gateshead Hall One she would have disapproved of RNS’ decision to perform Robert’s Symphony no. 4 in D minor in its original 1841 version, which she suppressed in favour of the more heavily orchestrated 1851 revision, but Brahms and many others prefer the earlier version, me included, so I was pleased Royal Northern Sinfonia opted for it. The lighter, clearer orchestration suits them and the acoustics of Hall One very well, allowing each section to shine and every detail countermelody came through clearly. Vogt took the opening gently, with a touch of sadness moulding the little theme that slowly grows throughout the four linked movements. Parts of the symphony felt a little dry, which surprised me; I felt that Vogt was holding his players back in the lovely oboe and cello solo at the beginning of the second movement, and his fast tempi in the outer movements meant that some parts became rather scrambled, although the mad scamper to the finishing line was very exciting. Bradley Creswick’s solo soared gracefully against delicate horns in the second movement, and the transition from the third to the fourth movements was beautifully paced, the violins and brass taking us on a logical progression from the thoughtful trio section into the clipped and crisp opening of the finale.

If RNS and Vogt were holding back some emotion from the Schumann, it turned out that they were just saving it for Brahms’ Piano Concerto no. 1 in D minor. Vogt conducted from the piano, which meant that the instrument was pointed inwards to the orchestra, without its soundboard, so there were times when it was overwhelmed by the orchestra, although I think my ears adjusted as the concerto progressed. Marney O’Sullivan set the mood for the whole performance with the expressive rise and fall in the long timpani rolls that underpin the opening, and with the intimacy of the first piano entry, followed by sobbing string melody, Vogt and RNS enraptured me with the romantic warmth of their performance. Vogt was sensitive throughout to Brahms’ careful balancing act between formal structure and romantic passion, which meant that the sprawling movements of this concerto never lost their way, and in the climactic ending of each movement soloist and orchestra still had more to give.  

The gentler passages of the first movement gave us breathing space; the little woodwind chorus felt like chamber music and the piano, horns and timps leading into the super-charged finale were magical. This magic was a prelude to the melting tenderness of the second movement, that began with a the caress in the form of Stephen Reay’s bassoon solo. The piano set-up in fact added to the effectiveness of this movement as it enhanced Vogt’s dreamy soft touch: the quiet calm of the music seeming to embody everything that is good in the world. Vogt’s rising trills at the end brought this movement to a radiant end, until the exhalation of the orchestra’s final chord released us from our dreams and Vogt plunged into the fire of the last movement. There are times in this movement when Brahms goes gloriously off the rails, throwing in thematic and harmonic twists, which work so well because he’s set us up with the rules that he breaks, and Vogt relished these moments, making for a very exciting finale. In a nice gesture to the orchestra, the encore was given jointly by Vogt and Bradley Creswick: the Scherzo from Brahms' FAE Sonata retained the mood of the concerto, but in a way that also brought calm after all the excitement.