On a night when fierce winds in the capital were rattling windowpanes and flinging the detritus of autumn through the air, it was instructive to recall that in times of oppression and political turbulence composers have often found those moments of life-affirming resolution to set against the restless elements. The three principal works in this Royal Northern Sinfonia concert were linked by this dichotomy, a distinction best summed up in Robert Frost’s memorable phrase of “outer and inner weather”.

© Craig Ogden
© Craig Ogden

Prokofiev wrote his First Symphony during the revolutionary tumult of 1917; Rodrigo composed the world’s most popular guitar concerto after the ravages of the Spanish Civil War and against the shadow of the impending Second World War; and young Wolfgang Amadeus was still recoiling from strong parental disapproval at his marriage to Constanze when, after a brief sojourn in the city that gave its name to the work, he dashed off his “Linz” Symphony in a mere four days.

This eclectic programme which the RNS has been touring through British cities was clearly designed to showcase the star Montenegrin guitarist Miloš Karadaglić. A hand injury unfortunately prevented his appearance but few can have felt short-changed at his able replacement, the Australian-born Craig Ogden. Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez is a cornerstone of any guitarist’s repertoire. Over time it has accumulated more myths and legends about its inception than most other works. Whether or not the composition was actually inspired by the famous gardens at the palace of Aranjuez is a moot point: his wife Victoria recorded in her diary that she was repeatedly sick after eating tripe there. However, the title has a particular linguistic resonance in Spanish and the choice was in any case a smart marketing move (when he was ennobled in 1991, Rodrigo became Marquess of the Gardens of Aranjuez).

The heart of the work is its extended slow movement with its two separate cadenzas. Here, Ogden steered a sensible course between sentimentality and over-sophistication, revealing an impressive level of technical accomplishment. Yet the reading was at times slightly understated, the pot never quite reaching a critical temperature, the innate seductive languor in occasional short supply. What was perhaps ultimately lacking was a deeper awareness of the Spanish concept of duende, an almost untranslatable word encompassing a quicksilver mixture of sadness and joy, which Federico Garcia Lorca once described as “climbing up inside you, from the soles of the feet... everything that has black sounds in it.”

The performance was somewhat compromised for me by the amplification of the solo instrument. Given the comparative smallness of its voice, the classical guitar needs some help in larger halls, but not in the more intimate surroundings of Cadogan Hall. Rodrigo, who learned his craft from Paul Dukas, takes great care never to pit the soloist against full-blown accompaniment, choosing instead deft exchanges between them and with textures that are supple and transparent throughout. In the three unaccompanied pieces which Ogden played in the second half, including the Tárrega staple, Recuerdos de la Alhambra, and Gary Ryan’s Rondo Rodeo, he dispensed with his electronic assistance and the overall effect was far more natural and persuasive. Ogden’s talents as a pedagogue were much to the fore in the witty introductions and technical explanations he addressed to the audience prior to each piece. The final work, Piazzola’s Libertango, with strong support from the RNS strings and a deliciously inflected solo from their leader, Bradley Creswick, was delivered with panache.

To begin the evening, Creswick directed from his leader’s chair a bright-toned and aerated reading of Prokofiev’s sunniest and most vivacious score, his Classical Symphony. The opening movement had all the fizz of bubbles rising to the top of a champagne flute and in the finale the characterful woodwind supplied an infectious sense of sparkle. There followed a sombre contrast in a work that was once premièred by Toscanini, Barber’s Adagio for Strings, a frequent stalwart at state and public funerals. Creswick’s approach was to allow the music to unfold somewhat reverentially in a self-contained fashion, with the darker sonorities reined in.

The highlight of this concert for me was Mozart's K425. From its suave slow introduction to the opera buffa elements in the finale, where the bows of the strings alternately dug deep and skipped lightly across the bridge, this was stylish playing to a consummate degree: energised, fleet-footed but never over-driven, an unbuttoned sense of joy and abandon radiating through the ranks. The sicilienne in the slow movement, underpinned by trumpets and hard-stick timpani in the minor mode, had a solemn splendour all its own; the minuet was infused with a rare buoyancy, with added decorations to Steven Hudson’s oboe line in the trio section. Altogether, this was a performance to warm the cockles of the heart.

***11