The three pieces performed this evening at the Sage Gateshead by Northern Sinfonia’s string section were very different in character, but they had one thing in common (apart from the alliterative composer names): they all were originally written as chamber pieces, and later arranged for orchestra. The intimate nature of chamber music means that it gives composers the opportunity to write intensely personal music, and this evening’s programme illustrated different aspects of the transition from the private to the public.

© Mark Savage
© Mark Savage

Schönberg made his own orchestral arrangement of Verklärte Nacht so there can be no dispute about whether the composer’s intentions were met and Barshai’s arrangement of Shostakovich’s Eighth String Quartet was done with permission of Shostakovich, who was a close friend. On the other hand, Mahler’s arrangement of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden quartet was made 70 years after the composer’s death and provoked outrage from performers and audience alike.

The concert opened with Verklärte Nacht and the richer, fuller sound of the orchestra gave Schönberg’s tone poem a surprising warmth. The opening phrase, low in the cello register, was gently subdued, and lovely, giving no hint of the turmoil to follow. The poem which the piece illustrates tells of a couple walking through a wood at night. The woman confesses that she is pregnant by a man she met before her lover, the man eventually accepts this and they walk on reconciled. The piece is scored with the violin taking the part of the woman, and the cello the man – in a chamber environment this could get very personal, and Schönberg’s orchestration escapes from this problem. Northern Sinfonia’s strings captured the drama of the story and put it across perfectly: the violins began their “confession” hesitantly, shyly and gradually worked up to a climax, and the silences after the solo violin section depicting the man’s acceptance and at the end of the piece were perfect. The final section was almost dance-like in places and really put across the joy of the lovers.

Shostakovich travelled to Dresden in 1960, intending to write music for a film about the Allied bombing. What he ended up writing was the Eighth String Quartet, an incredibly moving and personal piece of music, making heavy use of the composer’s musical signature DSCH (D, E-flat, C and B natural in German notation) and quoting extensively from his other works. The work was given the subtitle “in memory of the victims of fascism and war” but listening to it, there is no doubt that this piece is an incredibly complex and personal statement. There are those who argue that it should have been left in the intimacy of a string quartet, but tonight’s performance more than did the Symphony arrangement justice. The mournful DSCH motive was subtly emphasised throughout and the thudding repeated three-note motif of the fourth movement that may represent either the midnight knock of the secret police or the bombs falling on Dresden was banged out with an intense fury. The furious energy of the second movement requires extremely skilful playing, and Northern Sinfonia carried it off superbly, particularly the double basses – every note was crystal clear. In the end though, their playing of the beautifully painful final Largo left me in tears, and I don’t think I was alone.

After such anguish, there was a danger that anything else could seem frivolous and trivial but the Schubert contained enough romantic melancholy to bring us back to earth gradually. From the opening Allegro the energy of the players was immediately apparent, and they had worked themselves up into a joyful frenzy by the end of the Presto, which, coupled with the clown antics of leader Bradley Creswick during the curtain call, ensured that we left smiling.