One of my favourite videos on YouTube is a short compilation of Brahms’s most insanely brilliant bits of writing, and it’s no surprise that it includes several passages of the Piano Quintet in F Minor. It’s a piece on a grand scale; a massive opening movement, and then after the relative tranquillity of the second, the third and fourth blaze with almost unbearable passion. The best performances and recordings leave me not wanting it to end whilst at the same time wondering how much more I can take, and this was exactly what happened this evening in Hall Two at Sage Gateshead, when Lars Vogt and members of Royal Northern Sinfonia unleashed its raw power.

Lars Vogt © Neva Nadaee
Lars Vogt
© Neva Nadaee

I’ve heard Royal Northern Sinfonia chamber groups playing Brahms before, including the Op.34 Quintet, but never with such flair and energy. Most importantly, the five musicians gave themselves plenty of space; the brooding opening of the first movement was heavy with pauses and held under control by tightly unified playing, allowing for a slow-burning build-up with the piano pushing forward passionately to an emotionally bruising close. There was still a broad sweep to the calmer second movement, which Lars Vogt described before the performance as like “being at home”, and in his playing he particularly brought out the graceful melodic turns that evoke Brahms’ musical predecessors.

We had received some warning of the fire that would follow in the second half of the Brahms with Sibelius’s String Quartet in D minor, known as “Voces intimae” after a notation in the composer’s score over the three soft, mysterious chords at the heart of the Adagio. Even the players acknowledged that this piece was mostly new to them, but it proved to be an excellent pairing with the Brahms for both works are shot through with ungraspable, wordless emotions and whilst Brahms gives an outward display of passion, Sibelius’ music is intensely inward looking, particularly the third movement which came across as a regretful recoil from the busy, cheerful second.

The intimacy of Sibelius’ quartet came across from the wonderful blend that Royal Northern Sinfonia’s four string players achieved in the many unison passages, and in their sensitive responses to each other in the solos that begin the piece. There was a lovely clarity in the bustle of the second movement and the third was shaped above all by cellist Louisa Tuck, restraining the upper parts as they try to fly away and then as those strange chords repeated, magically, at the end, she linked each repeat with sweetly gorgeous legato playing.

After a dark, heavy jig, marked by restless running passages from the inner parts played by Iona Brown and Michael Gerrard, Sibelius’ quartet takes flight in the final movement, and tonight’s performance pulsed with energy; the upper three instruments coming together at times with that well-matched unison sound, before whirling off into a wild syncopated chase to the end. I think the general sentiment at the interval was “Why have we never heard this before?”

That same energy came back, redoubled, in the second two movements of the Brahms. Louisa Tuck’s earnest, urgent pizzicato led off the third in tense anticipation of the explosion of sound that was to come from Lars Vogt and the other players. There was noise, fire and no restraint but the players still retained the precision of chamber music. Each note of the piano was clearly defined even when swallowed up in the middle of the string texture. After the abrupt end of the third movement, the strings dug deep into the soul in the dark, shifting harmonies that begin the fourth before the cello breaks out into something resembling a dance, an attempt to lead the others out of the gloom, and the rest of the movement became a frenzied attempt to escape from that underlying darkness. There were nice contrasts throughout this movement, moments of sustained calm and carefully timed pauses, before the music took off again, finally, gloriously into Brahms’ monstrous coda.