There was an atmosphere of end-of-term exuberance at the Sage Gateshead this evening, as Northern Sinfonia brought their 2011/12 season to a close with a programme conducted by Principal Conductor Mario Venzago that cleverly mixed nostalgia and excitement. This was the first time I had seen Northern Sinfonia with Venzago: his big gestures brought out a new emotional depth from the orchestra that I hadn’t heard before.

Mario Venzago
Mario Venzago

The concert opened with Sibelius’ Valse Triste; like many other pieces of incidental music, it has long outlasted the play for which it was originally written. The piece tells the story of an old woman on her deathbed, who has been dreaming about dancing at a ball. Death appears in the form of her late husband, and she ends her life dancing the waltzes of her youth in his arms. The piece describes the scene perfectly, moving between sadness at death’s approach and joy as the dying woman relives happier days, and Mario Venzago brought out every nuance, from the tiny double bass pizzicato that opened the work, hinting at the dream waltz, through the flowing strings of the main theme.

Richard Strauss’ Oboe Concerto was written at the end of the composer’s life, as his country lay in ruins after World War II – in fact the composition was inspired by a meeting with an American soldier who had previously been an oboist with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra – but despite the sombre circumstances, it’s a relentlessly cheerful, fun piece, that looks back beyond the late-Romantic style usually associated with Strauss to the elegance of the Classical period. Strauss himself regarded his late orchestral works as mere “wrist exercise” (a description that may be more accurately applied to the demands made on the soloist) and although it makes few emotional demands on the listener, it’s a lovely piece.

Northern Sinfonia regularly showcase the talent from within their ranks in concerto performances, and there’s always something a little special about these events, a sense of the orchestra supporting their colleague. Oboist Daniel Bates gave a relaxed and confident performance, full of swagger as he zipped through the runs in the faster passages, and with a conversational lyricism in the slow second movement. Unlike some soloists, Bates continually made eye-contact with the orchestra, turning as much as possible to face whichever section was playing with him – this was particularly effective in the passages where the oboe solo is paired with the woodwind.

The concert closed with a magnificent performance of Brahms’ Symphony no. 4, one that built up to big emotional climaxes at the end of each movement. Recent reappraisals of Brahms’ symphonies have led to cleaner, more academic performances from some conductors, but even if tonight’s performance wasn’t strictly ‘authentic’, it was a lot of fun. I would have preferred a little more lingering on the wistful descending thirds of the opening motif, but Venzago’s drive through the opening set the tone well for the rest of the performance, and after a dark, brooding wind section, the movement ended with a visceral excitement that drew audible gasps from the audience.

The acoustics of the Sage brought a lovely clarity to the lilting second movement, and I heard details that I’d never noticed in recordings, such as a lovely cello pizzicato passage, a big fat viola sound, and exciting moments of harmonic colour in the strings. The movement closed quietly, with tense strings accompanying the woodwind solos, bringing a sense of anticipation before a punchy start to the Scherzo that followed.

Northern Sinfonia’s brass section were on fine form this evening, in both the Strauss, where the horns provided a warm introduction to the slow movement, and throughout the Brahms, but their moment of glory came with the trombone introduction to Bach’s passacaglia theme on which Brahms bases his final movement; it was a lovely, solemn moment before the symphony built up to its thrilling conclusion, and a fantastic way to close the season.