Hiding behind Royal Northern Sinfonia’s sedate concert title “String Masters” lay a feast of quirky chamber music, showing four composers exploiting their skill in string writing to play inventive games. There’s Mozart deploying a viola instead of an extra cello to his quintet K593; Stravinsky writing dramatically compressed miniatures; the young Shostakovich finding his own wild and distinctive voice; and Schoenberg, not yet throwing the rules of conventional tonality out of the window, but stretching them as far as he can go.

Royal Northern Sinfonia © Mark Savage
Royal Northern Sinfonia
© Mark Savage

Coming at the end of the first half after the Shostakovich and Stravinsky, Mozart’s graceful, easy-going quintet definitely felt like the odd one on the programme: the first movement jolted us so abruptly back to Classical form and harmony that it took a little while for my thoughts to adjust. The jarring contrast had an effect on the musicians too as the first movement still held lingering traces of the concentrated energy that they had been applying to the Russian composers.

The additional viola in the quintet adds a luxurious filling to the texture, particularly in the serene second movement, especially when Michael Gerrard took over the gorgeous singing line after first violin Tristan Gurney’s ecstatic solo. Earlier in the evening, I had thought that the RNS strings needed to give just a bit more bite, particularly in Shostakovich’s manic Scherzo, but their sweet-toned playing added a lovely sheen to an engaging performance.

Mozart’s quintet pays homage to Haydn, but Shostakovich’s Prelude and Scherzo for string octet at the beginning of the concert glanced further backwards to the Baroque in the prelude before the furious modernist explosion of the scherzo. After a tense and probing opening, Royal Northern Sinfonia’s smooth tone, combined with rhythmic drive in the prelude really added to the Baroque feel, culminating in Tristan Gurney’s explosive solo. After this neatly crafted prelude, the scherzo that follows comes as a real shock. All the elements of Shostakovich’s later style are in place; frenzied trills, door-hammering rhythmic motifs, and brash chords but without  any of the composer’s later psychological torments: it’s a glimpse of a younger, happier Shostakovich. The eight strings of Royal Northern Sinfonia were gloriously uninhibited in the Scherzo, helped by the fact that the violins and violas played standing up: violinist Alexandra Raikhlina seemed to be particularly enjoying the freedom to fling every inch of her body into the performance, whilst cellists Brian O’Kane and Daniel Hammersley built up the tension with their slippery bass line, full of glissandos and tremolos.

Stravinsky’s minute Three Pieces for String Quartet probably take less time to perform than it takes to write about them, but they are packed full with ideas: the musical equivalent of a really neat epigram (or a tweet?). Tristan Gurney reeled through the folk dance like the last drunk still standing at a riotous party. The second movement, Eccentric was inspired by the performance of Harry Relph (“Little Tich”), a dwarf clown, and so Stravinsky slips in a few references to his own puppet Petrushka: in a nice touch, Sage Gateshead had film footage of Little Tich running outside the hall. The final piece, Canticle, is a reverent chant, with hints at the plainsong Dies irae, its spookiness enhanced by Royal Northern Sinfonia’s ghostly whispering.

I would happily have skipped both Mozart and the interval to go straight from the viola’s dying breath at the end of Stravinsky’s Canticle and into the simmering opening to Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht. Despite the distraction of a perpetually squeaking chair, inexcusable in a venue like Sage Gateshead, the build up here was heavy with tension, the anguish to follow still buried, unspoken. Schoenberg’s original sextet version of this tone poem, is far preferable to his later, lusher version for orchestra: and tonight every thought was laid bare, there was nowhere to hide: the row of potted trees and the moon illumination that Sage Gateshead felt it necessary to add to the stage were completely superfluous, as the music said everything so much better (in fact this scenery gave the hall an air of a slightly grotesque Palm Court). Verklärte Nacht illustrates a poem about a couple walking through the woods at night – she makes a terrible confession, but he envelopes her with loving generosity and they leave sad, but reconciled – and Royal Northern Sinfonia exposed every nuance of the couple’s discussion, always unsettled and emotionally raw: James Slater’s viola pizzicato felt like terrible, wounding words being spat out, but in their moments of unity, the two halves of the sextet melted together beautifully. The final section when the music undergoes its transfiguration into more conventional harmony glowed with love and hope, although this unsettling performance from Royal Northern Sinfonia ended on a note of doubt and ambiguity slipped into the final chord.