Schumann and Brahms are linked together by their great friendship, their musical influences on each other, and, of course, by Schumann’s wife, Clara, who was one of the most important people in Brahms’ life. Between them, their lives span the entire Romantic period, and in their music, we hear its development from the wistful dreaming and nature-worship of the early years, through to the expressive maturity and emphasis on the past that came with late Romanticism.

Thomas Zehetmair © Dan Brady
Thomas Zehetmair
© Dan Brady

Writing to Clara in 1839 after attending a rehearsal of Schubert’s “Great” C major symphony, Schumann wrote: “I was supremely happy, and had nothing left to wish for, except that you were my wife, and that I could write such symphonies myself.” Two years later, he had married Clara and was writing his Symphony no. 1 in B flat, “Spring”, and the outpouring of joy that he felt is evident in every note, particularly when it’s played the way that Northern Sinfonia played it tonight, in the first concert of their Schumann and Brahms symphony cycle.

Conductor Thomas Zehetmair went for excitingly fast tempi, that reflected the energy and speed at which Schumann sketched out his first drafts, although at a couple of moments he pushed the players faster than they could comfortably manage. The opening movement was briskly cheerful, whilst the third and fourth were full of fun. In the final movement, Schumann quotes one of his earlier piano works – Kreisleriana: the winds of Northern Sinfonia took the opening section of this theme at a breakneck pace, to be met with a big sweeping response from the strings, to striking effect.

Schumann removed the titles that he originally added (from “Spring” by the poet Adolph Böttiger), but the descriptions fit the music nonetheless, and Thomas Zehetmair’s interpretation brought out these programmatic elements. The third movement was titled “Merry Playmates” and the there was definitely a sense of playfulness and laughter in the rising and falling motif in the last section of this movement. Such a joyful performance of one of the happiest symphonies in the repertoire made me wish that in a parallel universe Schumann might have lived a long and happy life, instead of meeting such a tragically early end.

Brahms’ Symphony no. 1 in C minor is another work with a well-known gestation. By the time that Brahms was writing, Beethoven and his symphonies had been raised to an iconic status, and for a long time, Brahms felt the weight of Beethoven too heavily on his shoulders. The result though was that by the time he did write his first symphony, he had already developed his own musical voice and orchestral style, and although this symphony clearly owes much to Beethoven, particularly in the great hymn-like melody of the last movement, it’s still distinctively Brahms.

There is a temptation, particularly with larger orchestras, to wallow in Brahms’ music, but there was none of that with Northern Sinfonia. The string section crafted the opening section into one long, sinuous phrase, that carried the momentum right through. Although the tempi were, again, mostly quicker than we might expect, there were also some surprises in the slower sections: a generous pull-up in the cellos in the first movement, and lots of space for the stately trombone trio in the fourth movement. This trombone motif, introducing the main theme, was played quite gently, and its warmth gave this little moment a beautiful sense of timelessness, looking right back to the brass writing of composers like the Gabrielis.

Northern Sinfonia’s brass section this evening were at their best, from the crisp fanfare that opens the Schumann symphony, right through to the stately horns and trombones at the end of the Brahms, with a fabulous little flourish from the bass trombone in the closing chords. This last moment showed just why playing Brahms with a smaller orchestra like Northern Sinfonia works so well, because little details like this come through so clearly.

There is also a sense when watching Thomas Zehetmair conduct that he pays a lot of attention to these details. He conducts with his whole body, swaying, almost jumping off his feet, and making big gestures to bring out individual parts – watching him gives the impression of a chef zipping around his kitchen adding different spices to his mixture to create a perfect finished dish, and the orchestra respond to this physicality – I enjoyed watching the flutes and oboes swaying along in the first movement of the Brahms.

The concert closed with the an emotional performance of the second movement from Mozart’s Symphony no. 38, “Prague”, a piece that was played in their first ever concert, and which was played again tonight as a tribute to Northern Sinfonia’s founder, Michael Hall, who died a couple of weeks ago.