If you like elegantly constructed concert programmes, Royal Northern Sinfonia and Alexandre Bloch served up a particularly fine example this evening, threading together the unlikely pairing of Brahms and Ravel by way of gypsy dances and music that looked back to the Baroque. Most of the programme was standard concert fare, but Bloch treated each work on the programme as though it were as challenging and new as the one exception to this, Thierry Escaich’s Baroque Song.

Alexandre Bloch
© Sebastian Ene

Keeping to a vow he says he once made to give explanations to all his performances of modern music, Bloch gave an engaging introduction to Escaich’s piece, which takes ideas from Bach’s organ music and throws them against a more brutal, Modernist sound-world. The opening was driven by relentless semiquavers from the flutes, whilst in the second, a serene bit of string quartet counterpoint was flooded by chaotic sounds, but always resurfaced unspoilt: a fragment of beauty in a landscape of destruction. Out of this, violin harmonics were a halo around the virtuosic cello solo, before a final crazy dance. We’re used to hearing how the organ can recreate the sound of a whole orchestra, but in this piece, Escaich reverses the process and, through precise balancing of the winds and brass, Bloch and RNS gave the uncanny impression that Sage Gateshead had hidden an organ somewhere in Hall One.

The Escaich came sandwiched between the two pieces of Ravel. RNS leader Bradley Creswick was seductive and flirtatious in the violin solo of Tzigane. There was a raw edge to his tone in the slow opening passage that took the music and the listener away from the formalities of the concert hall, and Creswick’s communication was so intense that despite the distance from my seat to the stage, I felt as if he was playing just for me. Once the orchestra came in, Creswick turned the intensity back to them, locking into a teasing duet with his RNS colleagues and egging them on to mimic his own fireworks.

After the gypsy wildness that we’d heard earlier, the dances of Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin were polished and graceful. Royal Northern Sinfonia’s excellent wind section were to the fore here, their lyrical and delicate melodies always darting lightly through the air like dust motes in the sunlight. “Forlane” had soothingly hypnotic swing; Bloch allowed a little bit of passion through in the “Menuet”, but never straying beyond the bounds of exquisite good taste; and the “Rigaudon” was fast and playful.

Royal Northern Sinfonia had opened the concert with two of Brahms’s Hungarian Dances, giving the first, no. 2, a sweeping breadth and freshness that felt as if they were outdoors playing in a park, then no. 5 was quirky and playful. Royal Northern Sinfonia returned to Brahms after the interval to give what, for me, was a revelatory performance of the Symphony no. 4, a performance that made me fall in love with this revolutionary symphony all over again. It’s easy to fall into the trap of treating Brahms like a favourite jumper – something to snuggle up in comfortably, but whilst the sound Bloch brought out of Royal Northern Sinfonia’s strings was as luxurious as cashmere, there was nothing lazy or comfortable about the interpretation. Those lilting phrases of the first movement began as a gently nostalgic dance, then as the music developed Bloch pulled and teased each new idea directly out of what came before, creating an unbroken, sweeping statement. The middle section felt startlingly bold and experimental, and each new musical development shed new light on the returns of the theme; every phrase was explorative and challenging and absolutely never comfortable or boring. After a stirring opening to the second movement from the horns, the music suddenly retreated into introspection, with tender, beautiful string playing. Bloch then spent the rest of the movement lovingly coaxing the music back out into the open, as it grew again and became ever bolder, eventually blooming into heartwarming confidence, ready for the flair and spacious optimism that he brought to the third movement. Royal Northern Sinfonia returned here to the energy of the Hungarian Dances: bright and happy.

Brahms uses the old Baroque passacaglia form for final movement, but he takes what could be a dry exercise in counterpoint and transforms it into something radical and emotionally searing, and in their performance Royal Northern Sinfonia and Bloch continuously challenged us to think anew about what Brahms is doing here. The winds cooled the mood down after the solemn brass opening, but it quickly became exciting and probing. The little trombone chorale which can often sound a bit pompous was surprisingly sweet here, before the texture thickened and grew. Bloch built up the tension, with short, jabbing statements before powering this great beast of a movement through to its devastating ending.