From Handel to Brahms to Rubbra to a first performance by William Marsey, this evening’s concert by Royal Northern Sinfonia and their Music Director Lars Vogt traced a chain of influence and admiration across the centuries. Handel was followed by Brahms’ homage to Handel, arranged by a 20th-century admirer of Brahms, Edmund Rubbra, and bringing us to the present day, local composer William Marsey acknowledged Handel’s organ concertos in his programme note for the world premiere of his piece The Sea. Brahms’ popular Second Piano Concerto rounded off an excellent choice of programming.

Lars Vogt
© Giorgia Bertazzi

Vogt and RNS opened with Concerto grosso no. 7 from Handel’s Op.6 set. Vogt likes to stretch out pauses and silences for as long as possible; this is fine when he does it in Beethoven, but it wasn’t such a good way to start Handel, and after this very ponderous opening much of this concerto was rather heavy, as if the orchestra had forgotten that they weren’t yet playing Brahms, although the luxuriously creamy third movement, with a lot of emphasis on the middle voices worked very nicely. The theme in the second movement fugue was well shaped, driven along by a powerful bass line, and in the fourth and fifth movements, the tempo and mood picked up a bit: some strong dynamic contrasts injected life into the fourth, and stretchy syncopations gave the closing Hornpipe a nice swing.

Brahms’ Handel Variations for piano are based on an air from a harpsichord suite. To my mind, Handel’s tune bears a distinct resemblance to Jeremiah Clarke’s famous trumpet voluntary The Prince of Denmark’s March, and it seems that Edmund Rubbra might have had the same thought, for in his orchestration of Brahms’ variations, he gives this opening theme to a solo trumpet, and it was given a suitably Baroque sparkle by RNS’s RIchard Martin. Rubbra’s orchestration is a curious mix: there are moments, such as the opening of Variation 9, when he captures perfectly what Brahms might have done, with a sumptuous spread of strings and brass, whilst other variations, with high strings and a touch of woodwind had a distinctly 20th-century English feel. Several sections are given almost entirely to the woodwinds: the first variation with an oboe and clarinet duet punctuated by piccolo runs was delightfully playful. Variation 23 is bright and percussive, and in this movement, it was definitely Vogt the pianist who was conducting. The loveliest part of this set, and of the whole concert, was the romantic cello solo, with horns – another very Brahmsian touch of orchestration here – in the fifth variation. Cellist Steffan Morris played it with a gorgeously expressive legato which I hoped was a good omen for the cello solo coming up in the concerto.

Vogt and Royal Northern Sinfonia performed the first two movements of Brahms’ Piano concerto no. 2 in B flat major with imagination and flair. The horn solo that begins the first movement was smooth and spacious, and Vogt added plenty of rubato, the piano part at times hyperactive but pulling back to moments of tenderness. As the movement developed, Vogt built up the energy, so that they were fully charged for the end where Brahms lets himself go and launches into one of his slightly crazy passages, with Vogt’s crisp trills in the piano egging things on. The second movement sounded odd to start with because the lower strings were a bit too loud and drowned part of the piano. The violins came in quietly icy and detached, and gradually warmed up before Vogt let the orchestra explode into a forceful, feverish end.

Possibly Vogt’s imagination got the better of him for the third movement. The cello solo was faster than I’ve ever heard it, which then gave it an odd jerkiness, and stripped it of its usual mellow, autumnal mood. Vogt’s quiet piano entry was tender and intimate to begin with, although it tended towards being a bit too bright and percussive after a while. The orchestra were allowed to soar as the movement progressed, bringing some calm. Perhaps because this third movement didn’t find its serenity, there was less opportunity for the orchestra to create a big contrast in the last movement. Vogt set up a nice lilt to start with but this movement never really took flight, and lacked the drive that had been there in the first. They lurched into a final accelerando for the last page, but it was not well-prepared, and too little, too late.

The Sea by William Marsey is one of Royal Northern Sinfonia’s commissions for their 60th birthday celebrations. Rumbles at the extreme end of the piano are answered by the lower strings: Marsey’s sea is clearly the incessant pounding of the North Sea on the shores of his native Hartlepool, vividly portrayed in musical form.