Julian Rachlin, as soloist and conductor with Royal Northern Sinfonia, fused Beethoven’s Violin Concerto and his Eroica Symphony together into one coherent, flowing narrative at Sage Gateshead, the symphony picking up after the interval where the violin concerto had left off. Rachlin’s hero in the first movement of the symphony came across as a charismatic but hugely likeable figure, the sort of person we’d all want to have as a leader, and his reading of the violin concerto made a fitting prelude: focussed, purposeful but also cheerful.

Julian Rachlin © K Miura
Julian Rachlin
© K Miura

The long first movement of the concerto unfurled carefully out of Marney O’Sullivan’s tranquil timpani rolls, the theme gradually expanding each time it returned, like a river broadening along its course. Rachlin at times brought the music almost to a halt to renew the energy before surging onwards; there was firm resolution but nothing frantic in his pacing.

Beethoven’s first soloist, Franz Clement, was noted for his pure tone in the violin’s highest registers, and so Beethoven made much of his friend’s skill, with a lot of very high writing for the soloist. Rachlin seemed equally at home in the upper register from where he spun out a pure silky thread of lacy cobwebs above the orchestra, combining a really smooth line with absolute clarity and delicacy in the articulation: a stunning lesson for any musician in how to play or sing legato passages.  

The transition into Fritz Kreisler’s cadenza created a brief hesitation and air of uncertainty in the music but by the time the strings return, pizzicato, the Royal Northern Sinfonia brought a mood of closure, with soothing playing that anticipated the serenity of the middle movement. Here, Rachlin’s violin rose gently out of the warm orchestral texture, tenderly caressing the solo line. Woodwinds and strings mirrored each other beautifully and again anticipated the next movement by adding just a little bounce and spring into their pingy pizzicato. The final Rondo was full of fun, with lots of pull-ups in the tempo before each return of the theme. Rachlin allowed the solo statements of the theme to feel just a little intoxicated, and his final one was downright cheeky, with the orchestra each time coming back in as the stabilising sober friend. The orchestral texture was light, allowing all the wind instruments to come through, most notably Stephen Reay’s happy bassoon solos.

Rachlin’s hero strode optimistically into the start of the Eroica, borne in on little fragments of wind texture as the music grew and blossomed. Rachlin set out every nuance of his protagonist’s thoughts and actions with crystal clarity, making for a really absorbing performance as I sank into to the hero’s world. Disruptive brass interjections added moments of questioning, with pianissimo violins then drowning in doubt before the horns gave a decisive answer and got things going again.

After such a positive first movement, which created much goodwill for our hero, the bleakness of the funeral march that followed was almost too much to bear. In its first statement, the theme was full of regret and utter devastation: in my mind, I saw not the dignity of a funeral but the loneliness of crows hovering over a desolate battlefield. Just when it seemed that the whole world had gone up in flames, Rachlin allowed through little stirrings of life, the relieved survivors picking themselves up ready to go on, so that the next time the funeral theme returned, it was even more shattering, snuffing out that little light of hope. Finally, the violins, with gritted teeth and grim determination, announced that life must go on, until gradually the final iterations of the funeral theme became just a sad memory.

This extremely dark second movement meant that joy of the third movement had to begin carefully, but Rachlin judged the mood change well, and the music gradually became boisterous, even slightly hysterical, as the orchestra abandoned everything to the sheer relief and joy of having survived. The horns urged the music on, and every oboe entry felt like a call to a party, although the violins retained a note of good-sense and caution. By the fourth movement, the hero had returned to restore order, with determination to rebuild; Rachlin used Beethoven’s hemiola rhythms to great effect, bestriding the bar lines to suggest that no obstacle could possibly get in the way now. This time is was the winds who were briefly thoughtful, making us look back and remember the journey that our hero had taken through the concerto and symphony to reach this point before the final gallop to the end of this riveting story, told with such clarity by Rachlin and Royal Northern Sinfonia.