Early Romantic symphonies lie at the core of Northern Sinfonia’s orchestral repertoire, and so to hear different groups of their players getting together with pianist John Reid to perform chamber music by Schumann and Brahms seemed like the most natural thing in the world, an intimate, scaled-down version of one of their regular concerts.

John Reid © Benjamin Harte
John Reid
© Benjamin Harte

Robert Schumann’s Piano Quintet in E flat was written during 1842, his “year of chamber music”, in which he also wrote three string quartets and a piano quartet, and this was one of the first significant works to combine the traditional string quartet with a piano. Schumann precisely balances the string quartet and the piano, giving equal weight to each, right from the declamatory opening. John Reid then set the tone for the rest of the performance, giving the first piano subject a lovely lyrical feel, which was then taken up by the strings in a wonderfully sunny and relaxed performance. The mood shifted immediately for the second movement, with first violin Iona Brown imparting a very sinister feel to the opening phrases, giving the impression of someone very cautiously entering a dark, scary place. The whole movement was utterly absorbing as the spooky theme gradually took shape and grew in power, a dark centre to Schumann’s joyful work. The third movement was fast and furious, with John Reid relentlessly pushing the strings onwards, but they all settled down to a rather pedestrian pace for the opening of the fourth movement.

As light relief between the mighty works by Schumann and Brahms, we were treated to a delightful little duet for cello and double bass by Rossini, written, literally, as a party piece for a friend of Rossini’s who was a virtuoso double bass player. It was, I think, too much of a contrast with the other pieces on the programme, but it was great fun, and Sian Hicks showed us a completely unexpected side of the double bass – nimble and delicate, and zipping around the instrument’s entire range while Gabriel Waite’s cello mimicked Rossini’s bel canto vocal style.

Schumann believed that chamber music should avoid the “furore” of the symphony and adopt an intimate, conversational tone, whereas Brahms, on the other hand, was clearly using his early chamber music as a testing ground during the long years it took to work himself up to writing a symphony. Listening to his Piano Quartet no. 1 in G minor, it’s easy to imagine this piece working perfectly as a symphony, not just in its length and ambition, but also in the way that Brahms gets so much out of just four instruments – there were times when it felt as if the whole orchestra were there, particularly during the big string statements of the first movement and in the sweeping chorale-like theme that opens the third.

The symphonic grandeur of much of this work was tempered throughout by a lightness of touch by John Reid, particularly in the piano interjections between the bold strings of the first movement, and his first gentle statement of the march theme in the third movement – so that when this returned, bigger and bolder, it was quite a surprise. Violinist Bradley Creswick also drew out some lovely intimate moments in the second movement, with exquisitely quiet and tender playing.

The climax of any concert that includes this piano quartet is always going to be the thrilling Rondo alla Zingarese fourth movement, and the four players certainly did not disappoint here. It’s an infectiously fun movement that throws out any notion that Brahms is always serious and formal. The Northern Sinfonia players began with a solid determination, but a beautifully timed pause before the first pizzicato passage loosened it up, and even the big rolling theme slower section was full of fun, played here as if it were gently parodying the symphonies Brahms was yet to write. And then, just when the movement ought to be over, Brahms gives us a final madcap coda, restating the Rondo theme. It’s the sort of ending that makes you want to leap to your feet with applause the moment it finishes – and it received a well-deserved reception from the Hall 2 audience.

At times, both ensembles lacked the precision and communication of specialist chamber groups, and there were a few shaky moments, but the players’ experience of playing Brahms and Schumann’s symphonies with Northern Sinfonia showed these two popular chamber works in a new light.

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