The order of the works on tonight’s Royal Northern Sinfonia chamber concert was changed from what was originally printed in the programme, and the readjustment made a lot of sense, with contrasting string and wind works in each half, and a more coherent emotional journey, from the depths of despair in Verklärte Nacht back through the gradually lightening moods of Martinů’s String Sextet, and finishing with the high spirits of Dvořák’s Serenade in D minor, Op 44. In doing so, they also ensured that the title "Transfigured Night" applied to the whole programme, not just the piece that bears that name.

Members of Royal Northern Sinfonia © Mark Savage
Members of Royal Northern Sinfonia
© Mark Savage
This left Beethoven’s wind octet fragment Rondino in E flat, which ended up serving as a light apéritif before the meatier works. The piece was left over from other composition plans, and was only published after Beethoven’s death. The rondo theme is interspersed with solos – Jessica Lee’s sweet and poised clarinet passage was a particular delight here, as was the horn players’ adept juggling of their mutes to produce echo effects in the final bars. I also enjoyed the subdued volume throughout the Rondino; the Royal Northern Sinfonia chamber groups are sometimes a little too loud in the intimate setting of Sage Gateshead’s Hall Two, and the quieter playing here set the atmosphere nicely for the rest of the programme.

Schoenberg’s tone poem Verklärte Nacht illustrates a poem by Richard Dehmel in which two lovers, walking through a moonlit forest, have a conversation of terrible confession and reconciliation. The piece was written early in Schoenberg’s career, when he was stretching conventional tonality to its uttermost limits, without quite breaking it; after some 20 minutes of rootless anguish, the calm beauty of the D major ending reflects the transformation and hope of the lovers. This evening we heard the work in its original version for string sextet with its stark clarity, rather than Schoenberg’s later arrangement for chamber orchestra in which the richer texture softens the impact of the piece.

The six members of Royal Northern Sinfonia’s string section gave a compelling performance. The quiet opening on the lower strings was played with exquisite care, drawing us deep into the moonlit wood to witness the intense passion and the eventual ecstasy of reconciliation. First violin Kyra Humphreys gave her solo passage a wonderfully dark timbre that blended seamlessly with Michael Gerrard’s viola answer. The piece ended magically with shimmering violin harmonics over peaceful pizzicato and strumming in the lower strings, followed by a long silence, with all tension miraculously released. Above all, this performance really caught the dramatic change of mood that is the essence of this work.

Verklärte Nacht was famously rejected by the Vienna Music Society for its use of a chord that didn’t exist in any textbook. Martinů’s String Sextet H224, on the other hand, won the composer a prestigious American chamber music prize, and the composer thought that news of his victory was just a joke played by his friends. Royal Northern Sinfonia seem to be championing Martinů recently, programming him in two successive chamber concerts, giving this less-well known composer deserved exposure.

Although formally structured in three movements, the changing tempi within the movements result in six alternately slow and fast passages. The sombre opening continued the mood of Verklärte Nacht but the work soon brightens with funny rhythmic shifts kicking in, followed by a characterful viola solo and immaculate dovetailing by the six players as the tune moves between parts. The final movement was a boisterous romp, a world away from the seriousness of the Schoenberg: in the interval, my friend and I had been wondering how Verklärte Nacht could be followed, but the Martinů provided the perfect transition from that to the sunny Dvořák Serenade that closed the concert.

Dvořák wrote his Serenade in D minor, Op 44 at a happy time of his life, and it shows in the music. The main theme of the opening movement that returns rondo-style had echoes of a stately Baroque French overture, but it alternates with lighter solo passages. Oboists Michael O’Donnell and Rebecca Garland flitted lightly through their part with pleasing delicacy and the whole ensemble suffused the movement with laughter.

The inner movements aren’t Dvořák’s greatest writing, but they are gentle and sunny, and Royal Northern Sinfonia conjured up the relaxed atmosphere of a band playing in a city park in summer – an effect much enhanced by Dvořák’s addition of double-bass pizzicato under the winds. The second movement had some lovely interplay between the clarinets and oboes, and the horns added a dash of flair to the third. Dvořák ends with a flourish, right from the jazzy unison opening: this last movement was playful and fun, ending with a vivacious accelerando into a wild coda with a brief return of the serenade’s opening theme.