Royal Northern Sinfonia and their Music Director designate Lars Vogt brought the idyllic side of Romanticism to Sage Gateshead last night, revelling in luxurious textures and melodies that sang of happy, fulfilled love for family, in the piano concerto Schumann wrote to be played by his wife Clara, and for homeland in the evocative music of Czech composers Janáček and Dvořák.

Lars Vogt © Neva Nadaee
Lars Vogt
© Neva Nadaee

Schumann’s only piano concerto puts the instrument at the heart of the orchestra, and Lars Vogt took this integration a step further by conducting from the piano, with the orchestra grouped around him as if they were playing a small-scale Baroque work, not a mighty romantic concerto. The fact that Vogt felt able to do this after only a few concerts with Royal Northern Sinfonia spoke volumes about the level of trust and rapport that he has already established with the players, and of the teamwork of this tight-knit orchestra. There seemed to be a few anxious glances as Vogt and leader Kyra Humphreys set up the first chords, but everything came together impeccably.

Another effect of this unorthodox arrangement was that the piano, pointed away from the audience and without a lid, was quieter than one would normally expect from a concerto, and Vogt took advantage of this, making the opening theme softly introspective and tender before gently urging the orchestra to shine, particularly the clarinet and oboe solos, and in the second movement, the warmth of the strings surrounding the piano wrapped their new conductor in a welcoming embrace.

There were touches of passion from Vogt during his solo work, particularly in the opening movement but the overall impression was of a blissful sense of purpose, that concluded with a joyfully energetic romp through the final movement. Vogt avoided any temptation to thunder through the more demonstrative piano passages, choosing always a legato, albeit super-charged with energy when required.

The prelude to the Schumann was a more orthodox arrangement of piano and other instruments, for Janáček’s Concertino. The title is misleadingly grand, for the piece is, in fact, a delightfully playful set of miniatures, for an ensemble consisting of two violins, viola, horn, clarinet and bassoon and describing the night-time frolics of woodland animals. Horn player Peter Francomb became a “grumpy hedgehog”, first timid, then being coaxed out of his hole by the piano followed by a “fidgety squirrel”, Timothy Orpen’s tiny E flat clarinet crackling and restless in long, perfectly even trills. The remaining instruments join the game for the third and fourth movements, always at the beck and call of the piano: all the animal scurrying and arguing depicted in Janáček’s sparkling rhythms was great fun, but there was also a beautifully dark and still section in the fourth movement that was all the more powerful for the sudden contrast.

Lars Vogt was eventually wrenched away from his piano and onto a podium after the interval, for Dvořák’s Symphony no 8 in G major. Although this performance didn’t have quite the same sense of purpose and structure as the Schumann, Lars Vogt created beautifully shaped melodies, particularly in the opening themes of each movement, and the overall impression of one of fresh vivacity. The first movement ebbed and flowed with big contrasts in volume and tempo; the little leaping wind motif that often sounds snatched and a bit irritating was here smooth and poised, and the heavy brass sang out with a confidence that just about managed to stay on the right side of being too loud – their sudden interruption after a breathtakingly quiet pianissimo in the second movement pulled the music away from its brief moment of darkness and back to a happy song.

Vogt and RNS paired up for a beautifully swirling waltz in the third movement that made me feel that I was being swept off my feet and into the dance – and whilst the orchestra may have been musically dancing with their conductor, flautist Juliette Bauser and oboist Steven Hudson looked as if they were really dancing as they swayed through their duet together. A laser-sharp trumpet fanfare and a rippling unbroken line from Juliette Bauser’s flute solo set up a final movement, that gradually gathered momentum, ending in a tearaway gallop that came as quite a surprise, a sudden gust of wind on a fresh spring day.