Royal Northern Sinfonia’s guest this evening was the multi-talented Ryan Wigglesworth, who brought to Sage Gateshead his skills as conductor, pianist and composer. The concert opened with Wigglesworth as composer: his short piece A First Book of Inventions turned out to be perfect for Royal Northern Sinfonia, allowing them to unleash their characteristic energy and show off their tightly disciplined playing. Its sparkling opening was soon boosted by a sonorous double bass that pushes the music into a whirl of motion, with repeated rhythmic patterns played at wildly different speeds. Occasionally, the movement gives the illusion of pausing, but like a pendulum at the top of its swing it never really halts, and soon plunges onwards again.

Ryan Wigglesworth © Benjamin Ealovega
Ryan Wigglesworth
© Benjamin Ealovega
Ryan Wigglesworth’s inventive use of orchestral colour and texture was a good match to the pieces by Berlioz and Ravel that came in the second half of the concert. My preference is for the piano version of Le Tombeau de Couperin as, to my mind, Ravel’s extravagant orchestration detracts from the elegance of the original, but this was a fine performance, particularly from the winds, whose unity and clarity captured the spirit of the piece. Michael O’Donnell’s oboe stood out as his long solo passages rippled out in smooth, unbroken waves. Ryan Wigglesworth kept the first two movements cool and poised, before letting the sound blossom in the stately Menuet and finally bursting out into a big, bold performance of the Rigadoun, with some particularly deft horn playing.

The other guest this evening was the soprano Sophie Bevan, singing Mozart’s concert aria Ch’io mi scordi di te and the title work of the concert, Berlioz’s song cycle Les Nuits d’Été. Mozart’s aria was adapted from Idomeneo, with piano replacing the original solo violin part, so that the composer could perform it with the soprano Nancy Storace in her final concert in Vienna – and what was notable this evening was how Sophie Bevan and Ryan Wigglesworth captured the mutual friendship and admiration that obviously existed between the work’s first performers.

Berlioz’s song cycle, setting verses by his friend Theophile Gaultier, began as a set with piano accompaniment; the later orchestrated version was dedicated to six different singers, and thus poses a question of which voice type should perform it. The third and darkest song of the set, Sur les lagunes, plunges to challenging depths for a soprano, but Sophie Bevan lost none of her power or control as the words and music tumbled down in the poet’s despair.

Although there are hints of darkness throughout Les Nuits d’Été,  Sophie Bevan and Ryan Wigglesworth opted not to probe these elements too deeply. In the second song, Le Spectre de la Rose, in which a rose haunts the girl who killed it by plucking it to wear to a ball, the focus was on the innocence of the girl and the rose’s admiration for her beauty. Sophie Bevan resisted the temptation to over-do the song’s climax, and then ended with a beautifully controlled stillness, over mesmerising quiet strings. In the rising opening of the fourth song, Absence, she conveyed, in the beautiful timing of her long pauses, a hope that the beloved would return, and the final song L’Île Inconnue was delightfully flirtatious. Throughout the cycle, Ryan Wigglesworth and Royal Northern Sinfonia brought out the vivid orchestral word-painting that underlines the text; spooky woodwinds for the cemetery in the fifth song, a wonderful rocking cello accompaniment for the sea in the lagoon, and the freshness of the sea breeze in the sails evoked in the final song.

Everything on tonight’s programme was beautifully done, but the work that really made the evening extraordinary, and memorable, was Ryan Wigglesworth’s enthralling performance, conducting from the piano, of Mozart’s Piano concerto no. 9 (“Jeunehomme”). Written when Mozart was 21, this concerto marks the maturing of his style; it’s one of the first manifestations of his later genius. It begins cheekily, with piano and orchestra continually interrupting each other, and what I initially thought was rather heavy piano-playing turned out to be a foil for the beauty that followed. In the cadenza at the end of the first movement, Wigglesworth suddenly changed the mood, to a tranquil intimacy, setting the scene for the long, thoughtful Andantino second movement. The Andantino itself began with sombre poise in the orchestra, giving way first to tender piano passages, then passion, and throughout, the space and air between the notes was given as much importance as the sound itself. There was space to think, time to absorb this sudden maturity that comes as such a surprise after the silliness of the first movement. Wigglesworth then brought us carefully out of the intensity of the Andantino, taking care to ensure that the final Presto wasn’t a sudden shock, but a gentle transition back to the real world.