Sibelius and Wagner are not what you might expect to hear from a chamber orchestra; Royal Northern Sinfonia have been making forays into larger orchestral repertoire over their last few seasons, and what they lack in sheer power they compensate for with clarity and precision.

Royal Northern Sinfonia regularly invites guest player-conductors to lead their concerts, and performances conducted from the keyboard or the violin are common, but I think this is the first time I’ve ever seen an orchestra being conducted by someone simultaneously playing a trombone and acting as well, as Christian Lindberg did for their performance of his own work, The Tale of Kundraan. Written for trombone solo, orchestra and spoken parts (Lindberg took the central role of Kundraan and the other voices were recorded), Kundraan is a predictable Faustian tale of a musician making a pact with the devil in the search for artistic glory. The central part, in which the aspiring musician attempts to conduct The Rite of Spring was amusing, and the piece showed off Lindberg’s amazing trombone technique as well as the formidable talent within the Royal Northern Sinfonia wind and brass sections, but it didn’t sit well with the atmospheric sensuality that made up the rest of the programme.

Horn player Peter Francomb started off the concert with quiet poise in the solo opening to Weber’s Oberon Overture, matched later by smooth lyricism from Jessica Lee’s clarinet solo, whilst the rest of the orchestra bounced and danced under Lindberg’s sharply angular conducting.

From the very public world of Weber’s overture, Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder plunged us deep into private drama. Wagner’s five songs, setting poems written for him by his mistress, Mathilde Wesendonck are shockingly intimate; mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill and Royal Northern Sinfonia smouldered with such passion that listening to them felt almost intrusive, particularly in the ecstatic climax of Stehe still and in the third song, Im Treibhaus. Here the poet uses the tropical plants in a greenhouse, uprooted far from their natural environment, as a metaphor for her own longings, and the music evokes the steamy, over-ripe hothouse atmosphere. Cargill began with beautifully controlled quiet high notes against Michael Gerrard’s emotional viola solo, before ripening into heavy richness at the lower end of the range. The violin pizzicato depicting heavy drops of water completed the evocation of dark, dangerous passion. The first song Der Engel could have used more weight from both soloist and orchestra, but the passion built up over the cycle, and Cargill’s voice grew and  blossomed with glorious radiance in the fourth song, Schmerzen.  

The headline work for tonight was Sibelius’ Symphony no. 3 in C major, part of RNS’ season-long exploration of Sibelius and the Nordic musical world, and the start of their complete performance of his symphonies. The Third Symphony is a logical place to begin, as it marks Sibelius’ transition from the romanticism of his first two to the ever more condensed musical language that characterises his later works. I’ve been a late convert to Sibelius, and it happens that I’ve been working my way backwards through his symphonies, so for me, listening to the Third feels as much an end as a beginning, as I reach the source of this particular musical river.

Lindberg’s first movement captured what feels to me like a journey from modern urban efficiency out into the expansive beauty of the northern countryside. He set the cellos and basses off at a briskly efficient pace in their busy opening, but they also gave a sense of yearning to break away from perpetual motion, answered by the space and stillness that Lindberg allowed for the two solitary back-desk violins and the wind solos. The movement gradually opens out into a cinematic expansiveness, full of lovely textures and a sense of freedom and space.

The second movement exhibits Sibelius’ talent at squeezing out every possibility from tiny, simple musical fragments. The simple ditty of the second movement repeats relentlessly, the same question and answer motif becoming sadder with every repetition, like someone hopelessly trying to piece together an exquisitely beautiful object that’s been broken beyond repair. Some beautiful soft, sustained horn playing set up the heartbeat of the movement, but I felt Lindberg could have wrung out more of the tragedy in this movement. He also didn’t quite pull off the final movement, which should gradually come together in a warm glow makes sense of the chaotic fragments that precede it, but there was some fine playing, particularly from the middle strings, and Royal Northern Sinfonia made an excellent case for playing Sibelius with smaller forces.