The ghostly whispers of Sibelius’s Valse triste haunted the whole of this evening’s concert by Royal Northern Sinfonia, as guest conductor and soloist Julian Rachlin cast its spell of dreamy romanticism over the Mozart and Tchaikovsky that followed. Sibelius’ famous waltz originally came from music written for a play which opens with a dying woman waltzing with death. The music emerged tenderly in the basses and cellos, and apart from one little storm in the middle from the lower strings, horns and timps, it seemed to play gently with fleeting memories, breathing softly as the old lady gently waltzes out of life.

Julian Rachlin © Janine Guldener
Julian Rachlin
© Janine Guldener

The same sleepy, dreamy mood returned in the Adagio of Mozart’s Violin Concerto no. 3 in G major (K216, the “Strassburg”), Rachlin allowing the music to float along under his solo line. The outer movements provided a nice contrast to the rest of the programme, with their breezy, uncomplicated cheer: Rachlin and RNS opened the concerto with a bounce, giving the music lots of air and space. Every single note of Rachlin’s solo lines was immaculately placed and crystal clear, even in the tiniest ornaments and the fastest runs, and the oboes were particularly effective at matching his clarity in their conversational duets with the solo part in the first movement. In Sam Franko’s cadenzas, Rachlin created silence and space and in the first movement there was just enough tension so that when the orchestra returned there was a moment of joyful release.

The final movement of the Mozart began with a swing, full of Italianate vitality but the wistful spirit of this concert paid another brief visit in the mournful oboes of the gavotte section, before the solo line makes an abrupt change of character, breaking back into a folk dance. Rachlin was transformed now to a village bandmaster, elaborately weaving his fiddle line around the orchestra’s tune into a cheeky, abrupt end.

Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, with its carefully told story of the composer’s battle with Fate, gives plenty of scope for more melancholic dreams. Nick Carpenter’s grief-stricken clarinet solo at the start held nothing back, and promised much for the rest of the symphony. The dreamy mood returned as the bassoon joined the clarinet for their sad little dance before the music was swept away by the violins and the ferocious brass, in the first of their devastating interjections. This was where the only problem with RNS’ performance became apparent: there simply weren’t enough players on the platform to create the richness and depth that Tchaikovsky demands in this symphony, particularly in the strings. The listener has to be completely submerged in the power of this music, and although the lighter forces uncovered a lot of little detail, particularly in the last movement, the insurmountable force of fate wasn’t quite there.

The beauty of this performance lay in all the quiet passages, in which Rachlin gave full expression to Tchaikovsky’s despair: the gorgeous dying trembles of the double basses and bassoons at the end of the first movement; richly expressive playing throughout in the winds; and, above all, the poignant lyricism with which Peter Francomb played the famous horn solo at the beginning of the second movement. The oboe and strings developed Francomb’s deep romanticism, so that when the brass burst in with the fate motif, the effect was shattering – and when it came the second time, the music collapsed with grief, Rachlin and RNS creating a sense of complete spiritual breakdown.

The strong and clear sense of narrative that Rachlin created in the second movement continued through to the end of the symphony. The third movement, another waltz, showed a brave face to the world, a public picture of graceful acceptance, with the fate motif consigned to a sad little niggling doubt in the background, and like Sibelius’ waltz, filled with a sense of warm nostalgia. Rachlin took care with final victory over fate in the fourth movement, with the motif now transformed to the major key. There was no immediate acceptance here, but a gradual journey of discovery and new possibilities until eventually the music was allowed to erupt in joy. In the music’s final triumph there was some wonderfully exciting playing, particularly in the double basses and trumpets and in Marney O’Sullivan’s frenzied timpani at the false ending.

The joyful swagger of the symphony’s final pages carried over into the encore as the orchestra swept through Tchaikovsky’s Polonaise from Eugene Onegin. I’m quite hard to please when it comes to encores, but by rounding off the concert with another dance, this one hit the mark perfectly.

***11