Lars Vogt came blazing into his new job as Music Director of Royal Northern Sinfonia, creating an instant impression with his luxuriously expressive Beethoven and Brahms. In a pre-concert talk with Sage Gateshead Director Anthony Sargent he had talked warmly about the importance of putting across the meaning and emotion of the music, saying that for him through his career as a pianist and now as a conductor too, the images and emotions of music have to come first, and the technical details of performance follow. When it came to the music itself, this outlook came across in a bold, expansive sound, with beautifully shaped lines, and an overall sound that drew inspiration both from the majestic performances of the great German conductors of the past and from the clean textures of the historically informed movement.

Lars Vogt © Neda Navae
Lars Vogt
© Neda Navae

The opening chords of Beethoven’s Egmont Overture were firm, spacious and very dark, driven by a very full string texture, and right from these first chords, it was clear that Vogt was creating his own distinctive sound, quite different from anything I’ve heard before from Royal Northern Sinfonia. The whole of Goethe’s play is summed up in this overture, culminating in what Goethe, when he commissioned the incidental music, specified should be a “symphony of victory” as his hero mounts the steps of the scaffold and what we heard in the grand sweep of the main theme was indeed the steps of a triumphant hero, proud and undefeated.

The relationship between soloist and orchestra in Brahms’s Violin Concerto has often been described in terms of a struggle between the two – a concerto “not for, but against the violin”. There wasn’t really much of a contest this evening though, as soloist Alissa Margulis’s introverted performance didn’t really connect with either the orchestra or the audience and I frequently found my ear drawn not to the solo line but to the radiant sounds coming from the orchestra, particularly towards the end of the first movement. The extended orchestral introduction to the first movement promised much with its broad lilting motion, the tension building up to the violin’s first entry, but after that soloist, conductor and orchestra didn’t quite settle with each other.

As he does in the second piano concerto, Brahms gives the beautiful slow movement theme in this concerto not to the violinist but to one of the orchestra – in this case the oboe. Steven Hudson spun out a silky thread of ravishing beauty, clear toned, lyrical and seemingly never pausing for breath. Taking her cue from the oboe, there was more expression from Alissa Margulis in this movement than we’d had in the first, the violin tinged with sadness and wrapped in comforting warmth from the orchestra. Vogt then steamed into the final movement with barely a break, with stomping chords and miniscule pauses emphasising the gypsy dance rhythms. It was also a movement in which Vogt managed to draw out a sense of the gruff good-humoured side of Brahms’s nature that is so easy to overlook.

Royal Northern Sinfonia closed their last season, and ended Thomas Zehetmair’s time as their Musical Director, by playing Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Tonight, Lars Vogt picked up where they had left off, with the Sixth, the Pastoral, a symphony that seemed perfectly chosen to showcase his approach to music making. Beethoven’s famous stroll through the countryside became a wonderfully accurate picture of a real walk; at times Vogt was purposeful, strolling confidently and cheerfully along the path, then slowing sometimes to linger over something that had caught his eye, before settling down by the pretty stream to listen to the wonderfully characterful exchanges between the three birds of the flute, clarinet and oboe – and he really did stop to listen, leaving his three woodwind principals to their own devices here.

The peasants’ dance that followed was another picture of big, bold strokes – a heavy buzz in the lower strings, audacious enthusiasm from the oboe begging everyone to join in the dance and stoking up the energy until the storm interrupts. As a child I remember being scared by the thunderclaps of the storm movement, but the terror in Vogt’s storm came instead from the quiet, menacing drumming of the rain, with the thunder clearing the air. The final song of thanksgiving came shining out of the storm, led serenely by James Burke’s clarinet solo. From then on, Vogt and Royal Northern Sinfonia luxuriated in Beethoven’s lovely melody, the violins shimmering gently, the horns singing out bright and warm. Vogt’s imaginative Pastoral Symphony was a delight throughout, and ended with a beauty that moved me more deeply than I expected. After such a gorgeous start to his tenure at Royal Northern Sinfonia I’m intrigued and excited to see what Lars Vogt will do next. 

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