Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is a piece that can happily fill a concert on its own: its musical and emotional weight gives the audience enough to enjoy and to absorb without the need for anything else. This was the programme as advertised for Royal Northern Sinfonia’s end of season concert, and clearly plenty of people thought that just this one monumental work was sufficient for an evening concert, as it sold out Hall One at Sage Gateshead. However it turned out that the Sage management had other ideas, bolting on an entirely unannounced first half of disjointed short pieces and excerpts that didn’t seem to have any logical connection and which added seventy-five minutes to the concert running time.

Lars Vogt © Giorgia Bertazzi
Lars Vogt
© Giorgia Bertazzi

Although frustrating in terms of the concert arrangements, there was much to enjoy in this extra music. Schoenberg’s Six Little Piano Pieces played by Lars Vogt were as cold as ice, fragile little miniatures that could shatter with the slightest wrong move. The Vivace movement from Stravinsky’s Concerto in D was driven along by a quiet inner force, with the violins skating gracefully over the top, and oboist Steven Hudson playing the first of Britten’s Six Metamorphoses after Ovid from one of the upper levels of the hall was a magical opening to the evening.

Once we finally got to the Beethoven, it turned out to be well worth the wait. Vogt led RNS through a performance that had a convincing overall coherence across the symphony. The hushed opening bristled with agitation and a feeling of daring exploration, with notable thrust coming from a furious second violin line. The music briefly relaxed when the first theme returned, and generous rubato in each woodwind chorus allowed pauses for breath. At the climax of this movement, the earth shattered into convulsions, the orchestra held nothing back, whipped on by the relentless pounding of timpani.

Whatever it was that had been unleashed by this cataclysm, it caused the music to flee in terror, and the second movement became an urgent chase, a hunted beast darting lightly away to escape its predator, pausing now and again but always on the alert. There was some fine playing from the bassoons that kept up the urgency in a passage that can easily veer into sounding comic. Towards the end of the chase, the music became muffled and distant before eventually bursting out and escaping into a joyful romp, which continued into the trio section, where the elaborate wind solos, led by the lithe oboe, rang out in celebration, and the return of the theme rang out this time in triumph.

After all this, and with knowledge of the fourth movement still to come, Vogt used the third movement Adagio as a moment to rest and reflect. The winds began serenely, and although there was just a hint of quiet excitement, the music gradually acquired an expansive peace that was utterly lovely. The melody lilted along gently in long sinuous phrases, although later parts of the movement were marred by some ragged horn playing. After brief clouds, the music quickly regained its tranquility, and the movement drifted to a warm and generous end.

The final movement is, of course, where it is all leading to. After the howling opening chord and the majestic double bass motif, Vogt used Beethoven’s recap of the themes from the first three movements to mould the final Ode to Joy theme; he and the orchestra carefully examined each theme, taking from each what they needed to cook up the famous tune. First the double basses tried it out, playing so quietly that no-one dared to breathe: it was a magical moment and Vogt’s careful balancing of the orchestral forces allowed through a bassoon counter-melody that I had never noticed before. The themes of universal love and brotherhood of Schiller’s Ode to Joy often seem to be under threat in today’s uncertain world, but Vogt and RNS refused to be put on the defensive: the first brass statement of the theme was played extremely legato, giving it a swaggering self-confidence, a mood that resurfaced in the tenor solo verse, sung by Edgaras Montvidas.

The quartet of soloists were placed on the risers just in front of the choir, which meant they carried well over the orchestra. The four singers were nicely matched in their quartet passages, with soprano Natalya Romaniw standing out with a sound that was both strong and pure. The real heroes of this movement though were undoubtedly the Chorus of Royal Northern Sinfonia, who powered through Beethoven’s demanding and unsympathetic vocal writing with ease – the fugal passage was particularly good, and there were some nice contrasting passages of quiet reverence, enhanced by the trombones. The symphony ended, as expected, in a thrilling triumph that brought the audience to its feet.

***11