Two young performers took to the stage of Hall One at Sage Gateshead this evening, joining Royal Northern Sinfonia for a Classic FM concert featuring works from the radio station’s “Hall of Fame”. I suspect that the lavish melodies that appear in all three works contribute to their wide popularity but conductor Andrew Gourlay overlooked the romantic in favour of a rather dry approach.

Alexandra Dariescu © London Studios
Alexandra Dariescu
© London Studios

Shostakovich wrote his Piano Concerto no. 2 in 1957 as a 19th birthday gift for his son, Maxim. The late 50s was a time of relative freedom for Soviet artists, as Stalin’s successor Khrushchev lifted some of the censorship and artistic proscription that had weighed down so heavily on Shostakovich so here we see the composer in unusually relaxed mood. Alexandra Dariescu brought this out in the fast movements, casually slotting in with the winds in the opening bars, after a delightfully perky bassoon solo opened the work. Despite the carefree mood, there were moments where the unmistakably strident tones familiar from Shostakovich’s symphonies blazed through and Andrew Gourlay let the orchestra loose on the loud rhythmic passages of the first movement, with its characteristic high woodwind and wide open intervals, but there were times in both the outer movements when he seemed out of control, and the rhythmic tightness between orchestra and soloist went astray.

The second movement Andante is hopelessly romantic, sounding more like Rachmaninov than Shostakovich and here Dariescu was tender and introspective, letting the melody grow in richness – the emotional power of this movement all came from her, against overly careful, neat string playing. Her playing in the final movement was great fun, coloured with hints of jazz and the orchestra rose to the occasion – as so often with Shostakovich the music here treads a fine line between hilarity and madness, and the orchestra, the brass in particular, teetered daringly on the brink.

Gourlay had allowed no such antics in the first piece of the concert: and he created a lean dry sound in Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings, and although it sounded attractive, the Serenade is a work that really needed much more expressivity. It began promisingly, with an assertively cheerful statement of the chorale-like theme, and the Valse had a gentle grace and frothiness to it but neither the Elegy nor the Finale ever really got going. There was some beautifully delicate playing – exquisitely light pizzicato in the Elegy and lovely pianissimos but I wanted to hear a bit more of that famous Russian soul.

A similar problem infected Beethoven’s Symphony no. 7 in A major; there were moments of glory, but the work as a whole never really took shape. Each movement began promisingly, drifted, then found its footing. Gourlay took the first movement at a steady tempo, the first wind entries had a pleasing lilt, and there was plenty of excitement in the brass entries, but the transition passages were very drawn out, bringing the music almost to a halt. The glorious Allegretto started to gather momentum too late, despite early efforts by the violas to bring out some of the aching pathos of the melody. The final two movements were better: the Presto had spirit and fizz, and the whole orchestra relaxed into the final Allegro con brio, which buzzed along with a good driving beat from the lower strings.

The unusually large audience in Hall One clearly enjoyed it though, giving each piece a rapturous reception – there was so much enthusiasm that there was applause between movements for the Tchaikovsky, but I’ve heard much better performances of Shostakovich and Beethoven by this orchestra.