Northern Sinfonia’s concert in Hall One of the Sage Gateshead last night challenged the audience to put aside our normal preconceptions, to see well-known composers in a slightly different light. Mendelssohn’s “Fifth” Symphony was actually the second one he wrote – at the age of only 20 – but it was not published until after his death and is not played as much as his other symphonies. Bruckner’s setting of the Requiem Mass was also written in his twenties, and although he revised it nearly 50 years later, it bears little resemblance to the romantic heavyweight Bruckner that we are familiar with. Scored for just strings, three trombones and a brief horn solo, it looks back to the style of Baroque and Classical choral works.

Northern Sinfonia © Mark Savage
Northern Sinfonia
© Mark Savage

The changing of perceptions was at its most startling in the first piece of the concert. Carlo by Australian composer Brett Dean uses a specially prepared recording of the music of Carlo Gesualdo, and adds live strings and a sampler to create what the composer describes as a journey between two different time zones. The Renaissance composer Gesualdo is as notorious for the double-murder of his wife and her lover as for his exquisitely chromatic vocal works; Dean overlays Gesualdo’s startling harmonies from the madrigal Moro Lasso with strings that begin hesitantly but work up to an orgy of frantic sawing, reminiscent of horror-movie music, before dying away to delicate rapid pizzicatos. The recording degenerates into wordless sighs and breathing sounds as Gesualdo’s soundworld disintegrates, but the madrigal returns at the end; the resolved cadence in the singing contrasting with discord from the strings, and in a very effective ending that suggests the thread of life being snapped, the recording stops, leaving the harsh strings hanging in the air.

Mendelssohn’s “Reformation” Symphony, written for the 300th anniversary of the Augsburg Confession (a key moment in Luther’s reformation) also quotes other works: the “Dresden Amen”, used in Dresden’s royal chapel threads its way though the work, and the last movement is essentially a chorale prelude on Martin Luther’s great hymn Ein feste Burg. Northern Sinfonia played this last movement with a great sense of conviction, and I particularly enjoyed the warmth of the cellos in the quieter middle section of the melody. Mendelssohn’s work is often flawed by great openings that then don’t develop, and this symphony is no exception, but Northern Sinfonia and Thomas Zehetmair did a good job of making the first movement sound exciting, and the second theme in particular sizzled with life. The facile dance tune of the second movement was played with a joyful warmth and considerable swing, and the orchestra’s smaller forces brought an unusual clarity to the inner movements.

Bruckner’s Requiem in D minor occupies a strange middle-ground between the drama and terror of the settings by Mozart and Verdi on the one hand, and the later consolatory style of Fauré and Duruflé. The central section, beginning with the Dies Irae (Day of judgement) is dramatic, but strangely cheerful – perhaps reflecting that this is the work of a young man who is not afraid of death. Northern Sinfonia Chorus put all this across with their usual impeccable discipline and warm singing: there was some lovely long phrasing in the opening Requiem aeternam and the male voices in their unaccompanied Hostias section were a delight to listen to, as were the three trombones who joined them as the movement progressed.

The chorus were joined by a fine quartet of young soloists, who blended beautifully in their quartet sections. Soprano Elizabeth Watts is a rising star, whose rich lyrical tones were perfectly suited to this romantic music. Bass Stephan Loges achieved an effortlessly smooth legato in his upper register, but struggled with Bruckner’s very low bass writing, but there were no such problems for mezzo-soprano Anna Stéphany. Her lower register is rich and dark, and I would love to hear more of her.

The work ends with beautiful bright shining chords of the Lux aeterna, followed by an exciting rising chromatic scale in the final Cum sanctis, and it occurred to me that this could be a fitting requiem for an old man who is facing his maker with confidence after a long and fulfilled life. The music world lost one of its greatest singers today, and although it wasn’t intended that way, Northern Sinfonia’s warm and confident performance of Bruckner’s Requiem seemed to be as good a tribute as any to the late Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who gave so much to the world.