The ability of musicians to take music from the past and present it in a new way gives an important sense of continuity that holds together our musical tradition, and this applies equally to performers and composers, as demonstrated this evening by Northern Sinfonia and their young guest conductor Ilan Volkov, in Hall One of The Sage Gateshead. The new approaches come through an exciting new interpretation of an existing piece of music, through re-workings of earlier pieces, or through entirely original works that are inspired by the past – and all three were covered this evening.

Ilan Volkov
Ilan Volkov

Benedict Mason’s Sackbut Concerto, premièred this evening by Mike Svoboda, would, I suppose, just about fall into the last category, in that it uses an instrument that normally belongs firmly in the past, although the work was so laden down with avant-garde effects that the mellow beauty of the instrument appeared only in brief moments. Much of the work consisted of extremely long flutter-tongued notes, set against almost imperceptibly quiet strings. I like to consider myself as quite open-minded to experimental music, and have reviewed quite a few interesting contemporary works, but this particular piece just pushed the boundaries too far; it was neither interesting nor pleasant to listen to. Fortunately Mike Svoboda broke the mood with a delightfully silly encore, playing an infectious and virtuosic improvisation on what was basically a piece of rubber hose, with a brass bell attached to one end, and a mouthpiece on the other. He came on stage with his instrument neatly coiled up, so it looked like a natural horn, and he proceeded to uncoil it and lark around, whilst playing.

The re-workings of earlier music were provided by Thomas Adès and Andrew Manze. Manze’s treatment of John Dowland’s famous Lacrymae Antiquae is, as Manze himself said, a simple, hands-off approach, that simply arranges Dowland’s five instrumental parts for a modern string orchestra. Northern Sinfonia played with a lovely clean sound, no vibrato, and a relaxed looseness of rhythm that made the work an absolute pleasure to listen too, particularly after the harshness of Mason’s concerto.

Thomas Adès takes a step further from his source material in his Three Studies from Couperin, retaining the harmonies and rhythms of the original pieces but adding his own details. The results were absolutely captivating, combining the clean harmonies of the 18th century with the inventiveness of the 20th, and producing something strangely timeless. If I had switched on the radio and heard these pieces unannounced, I’d have been hard pressed to place them.

The first movement, “Les Amusemens” was mellow and hypnotic, held together by the rich tones of bass and alto flutes, whilst the second “Les Tours de passe-passe” was characterised by the relentless ticking of the tuned percussion and pretty little repeated figures in the flutes. As the rhythmic patterns in the strings and wind disintegrated, the percussion continued to tick, until the movement came to a explosive little end. The final movement, “L’Âme-en-peine”, was (as the title suggests) more sombre and it seemed closer to Couperin’s original than the others, but the timpani gave it a sinister edge, and Volkov worked it up into a powerful intensity that was extremely effective. All three pieces were exceptionally well balanced; every instrument perfectly audible, yet without losing the unanimity required to make them work so well.

After these three imaginative takes on the past, a Beethoven symphony could have come either as relief or a sense of returning to normality, but Volkov’s take on Beethoven’s seventh was as fresh and inventive as the other works. The swirling dance-like passages in the faster movements had a improvisatory feel to them, an infectious freedom that began with Juliette Bauser’s flute solos in the first movement and spread to the rest of the players by the third. In the third and fourth movements, though, it seemed that Volkov hadn’t really thought through what he was doing. The two movements run together into a rather sprawling whole as Beethoven throws in one new idea after another, but Volkov brought them to their climaxes too soon, leaving the players with nowhere to go.

The Allegretto second movement, however, was extremely effective, and carefully controlled. The violas and cellos began the movement with a lovely gentleness, and very precise phrasing, that Volkov gracefully unfurled and developed, and the horns added some lovely touches of power. There was a strong similarity between this Allegretto, the Dowland and the Adès’ Couperin arrangements, that neatly tied the concert together. This is music that endures the test of time, that stands up to new ideas, and evolves. I suspect, however, that the avant-garde excesses of Mason’s piece lead to a dead end.

***11