The Royal Northern Sinfonia’s series of live streamed concerts entitled New Beginnings continued with ‘Spring is Sprung’, with Paul McCreesh at the helm. Having watched a few recorded streamings lately, it was refreshing to see a live concert. Slightly less polished presentation, visible personnel and stage setting changes between pieces, and even some tuning up made it feel more like being at an actual concert. The downside was rather intrusive noises off and breathy sounds picked up by mics (particularly noticeable in the Vaughan Williams) that would have been ironed out in a pre-recorded stream – and we can do without canned applause at the end. However, on balance, this felt closer to the real concert experience we’ve all been missing.

Paul McCreesh
© Royal Northern Sinfonia

Delius’ On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring kicked off this vernal programme. After a slightly unsteady opening chord, the players soon warmed into Delius’ rich textures, and from there, McCreesh kept things flowing with a gentle lilt. The clarinet’s cuckoo was not overstated, emerging naturally from the textures, and the string sound was warm without excess weight. Thea Musgrave’s Green followed – originally written for 12 solo strings but played here in Martyn Brabbins' arrangement for string orchestra. Musgrave says the title “represents either the freshness of youth, or for the plant life in our world on which we all depend”. The conflict is between a lyrical arioso and a more urgent, even threatening idea, described by Musgrave as “inexorable and impersonal”. From a glassy, atmospheric opening to the frenzied intense climax, the RNS string players were in their element, with strong solo work and powerful contrasts between the lyrical and the harsher effects. At the conclusion, clustered chords were exchanged before merging, and then coming to a sudden stop, leaving the solo violin alone on a high E.

Maria Włoszczowska
© Royal Northern Sinfonia

Guest leader Maria Włoszczowska stepped in at short notice for the Vaughan Williams, after Jennifer Pike was sadly forced to withdraw. Włoszczowska’s playing in The Lark Ascending was easy and relaxed, and the winding figures rising to the first high melodic statement were natural and effortless, with a singing, pure tone at the top. McCreesh drew strong contrasts from the orchestral players, with a passionate full tutti, and a delightfully simple contrasting folk melody introduced first by the flute. Włoszczowska made dotted rising rhythms dance, and her solo finish had the perfect combination of controlled precision and joyful freedom.

Royal Northern Sinfonia
© Royal Northern Sinfonia

Schumann’s “Spring” Symphony began with a promisingly bright fanfare, and once over a slight ensemble issue caused by the echoey acoustic, the Allegro took off with an energetic “summons to awakening” (Schumann’s words). McCreesh gave the second movement a pleasantly lilting pace, with subtle dynamic surges, and the cellos sang out the lyrical melody. The tuning was not quite locked in for brass chorale, but this was swept away by the Scherzo. Here, the crotchets that follow the longer note in the theme were rushed by the strings, making the ensemble a little rocky to begin with, but the two Trios were increasingly lively, with a sense of contained energy almost ready to burst out at any moment. The Finale was the strongest movement here, with dancing energy, precise articulation and detail from the strings, and great contrast between the bouncy wind passages and the pompous string interjections. McCreesh led the players through the rising harmonies with expertly scaled dynamics up to the pause, and following the horns, the flute trill deftly led us back to the dance. From there, it was definitely “Spring in full bloom” (Schumann’s withdrawn title for the movement), with bright brass and an emphatic finish.   

This performance was reviewed from the Royal Northern Sinfonia video stream