Northern Sinfonia ended their 2012/13 season this evening with the final stop in their journey through the symphonies of Brahms and Schumann. This cycle has got better and better as it progressed, ending this evening in a concert that was a beautiful mixture of lightness and depth, exquisitely shaped by their conductor Thomas Zehetmair.

Thomas Zehetmair © Dan Brady
Thomas Zehetmair
© Dan Brady

Schumann’s Fourth Symphony began with lightness; the dramatic chord that opens the work floated in the air, instead of being a big crash, and the sense of tantalising anticipation that it contained carried over into the music that followed, giving the opening passage of this movement considerable momentum and energy. Spiky woodwind passages contrasted nicely with the expansiveness of the strings, and this first movement reflected the warmth of feeling that this orchestra and conductor have for these Romantic symphonies.

Schumann wrote the first version of it in 1841, just after his First Symphony, but it was not a success and he revised it extensively ten years later, publishing it as his “Fourth”. It certainly seems a work of greater romantic maturity than Schumann’s earlier symphonies; it has no explicit descriptive programme, and the four movements run together in one unbroken whole, with recurring and developing themes running through the piece. The close musical and personal relationship between Brahms and Schumann came through particularly strongly in this symphony: parts of the second movement, for example, I would once instinctively have described as “Brahms-like” but closer reflection at the end of this informative symphony cycle has led me to a better understanding of how closely these two composers are intertwined.

After the gentle and darker second movement, the final two movements of the Schumann buzzed with energy; the Scherzo was a delight, with punchy syncopation, and a freshness that came from the orchestra’s responsiveness to Zehetmair’s expressive conducting, that seems to mould and shape the sound before our eyes, and later we enjoyed the same sparkle in the Scherzo third movement of Brahms’ symphony. The clarity of the bass lines in the final movement of the Schumann added to the energy as the whole work grew in power, to its glorious end; it’s one of those pieces where you want to burst into applause even at the end of a recording, and this performance certainly merited it.

Brahms’ Fourth Symphony was so rapturously received at its first performance, at what was in fact to be the composer’s last public appearance, that the audience clapped after each movement. The audience for Northern Sinfonia’s performance this evening clearly felt the same way, for there was a ripple of applause after the first movement, resulting in vigorous nodding from Thomas Zehetmair that I took to be approval.

The lovely falling theme that opens this symphony is hard to pull off: if it’s too slow it becomes excessively sentimental, but I’ve heard performances that go too far to the other extreme, when it becomes briskly matter-of-fact. Zehetmair’s approach was to take it at a reasonable pace but phrasing off each two-note phrase to create their sad sighing, and this worked well. This is a symphony of dramatic mood changes, from autumnal sadness to a sense of joyous achievement, a work that reflects the ending of a good life. The abrupt change from the confident horns that open the second movement to the softness of the woodwind solos was beautiful, and Northern Sinfonia’s account of the whole of the second movement I found very moving.

A warm trombone passage toward the end of the Scherzo in Schumann’s symphony gave a hint of what was to come in the final movement of the Brahms. Northern Sinfonia’s three trombonists were at their best this evening, warm and powerful, without drowning out the small orchestra, as they heralded the passacaglia that ends Brahms’s last symphony, and underpinned it as the variations unfurled above. The beauty of this performance was that Zehetmair and Northern Sinfonia made Brahms’ clever musical architecture wonderfully clear, but without ever allowing it to become a dry academic exercise. The end of this symphony was charged with passion, and was a fitting conclusion to a wonderful cycle.