Royal Northern Sinfonia and its Music Director Lars Vogt opened the new season at Sage Gateshead with a journey beyond the standard chamber orchestra repertoire into the vast symphonic landscapes of Russia. Its programme was framed by whispers, starting with the magical, shimmering silence of the grasslands in Borodin’s In the Steppes of Central Asia and ending with deathly oblivion as Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no. 6 in B minor collapses into darkness, but the orchestra was limited by its size, particularly of the string sections, so what came in between the whispers didn’t always rise to the heights that the music demands. This felt like a programme that was chosen to fill the hall rather than show the orchestra at its best.

Royal Northern Sinfonia © Mark Savage
Royal Northern Sinfonia
© Mark Savage

Clarinettist Nick Carpenter set up an atmospheric beginning to In the Steppes of Central Asia; his languid solo was quiet but beautifully projected, giving a sense of the spacious panorama that unfolds in Borodin’s music, and he was well supported by the violins with their mesmeric sustained high note. Vogt gave the full string melody that comes later a very angular shape, which kept the music rooted to the earth, where I usually expect a bird’s eye view of the rolling steppes.

Of the three works on the programme, Shostakovich’s Second Piano Concerto was the best suited to Royal Northern Sinfonia’s forces, and there was plenty to enjoy in their performance. Led by the bassoons, the wind section sparkled through the first movement, with Vogt crisp and jazzy at the piano: this was real first night of the season celebratory stuff, with everyone having fun, particularly piccolo player Robert Looman. Vogt frequently directs concertos from the piano, and whilst this is fine for early romantic repertoire where piano and orchestra often take turns, it was not entirely successful here where piano and orchestra are closely meshed together in complex rhythms, and the piano plays almost continuously. Vogt’s head nods were not always sufficient to hold things together, so piano and orchestra frequently got out of synch with each other in the outer movements. The luscious slow movement offered serenity, but I couldn’t help feeling that something was being held back.

The final movement of Shostakovich’s Piano Trio no. 2, in which Vogt was joined by leader Kyra Humphreys and cellist Steffan Morris was an odd choice for an encore, as this anguished dance of death is one of those passages of Shostakovich that leaves me cowering in terror, but viewed in the context of the whole programme, it made for a good link between the sunny piano concerto and the soul-bearing miseries of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique, and was thrillingly played.

RNS' Tchaikovsky shared some of the features of the Borodin with beautiful wind solos and spellbinding quiet passages, but apart from the moments when the brass are unleashed, there was always a feeling that something was lacking, that there just wasn’t enough depth or richness in the string section to bring through the full emotional weight of this symphony. Stephan Reay’s opening bassoon solo was sumptuously dark and velvety, and his sustained lines in the closing Adagio lamentoso seemed to bear all the grief of the world.

The brass carried all before them on a storm of passion in the second half of the first movement, and here at last was the unrestrained emotional power that I had been looking for all evening as the three trombones broke me, and Carpenter’s deeply sorrowful clarinet solo that came after gently picked up the pieces.

The strings were at their best in the 5/4 waltz of the second movement, which was stylish and graceful, with a nice overarching narrative through the changes of mood. The third movement march built up to a confident swagger, the trumpets ringing out in the last brazen defiance of fate. The quieter parts of the finale were desperately sad, and the trombones majestically funereal, but on the whole this was grief on an individual scale, rather than the feeling that an entire world was collapsing around us.


**111