Brahms, Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Dvořák sit together comfortably on a concert programme, like a steaming plate of cabbage and dumplings in a central European café, but this evening’s performance by Royal Northern Sinfonia and Lars Vogt avoided any stodge and more closely resembled one of those elaborate and joyful Viennese puddings, laden with cream and constructed to give pleasure.

Lars Vogt
© Giorgia Bertazzi

The opening chords of Brahms’ Tragic Overture were almost jaunty, with the first section quite clipped and brisk, but when Vogt pulled everything abruptly back for the central section, the wind went out of the orchestra’s sails, leaving a deflated feeling, until the strings and horns pulled things back up, injecting bursts of fuel that Vogt could use to power grandly through to a majestic ending. It wasn’t imbued with the tragedy that the title suggests, but Vogt’s approach fitted well with what he did for rest of the programme. Guest soloist Anna Rezniak played Beethoven’s Romance no. 1 with a straightforward cheerfulness, entering into a tight chamber music dialogue with the strings and winds of the orchestra in the opening, and bringing a strong feeling of gypsy improvisation to the livelier second half.

The opening of Mendelssohn’s Piano concerto no. 1 in G minor with Vogt directing from the piano gave the impression that we were being whisked upwards in a fast elevator, with orchestra and piano together providing the propulsion. There was plenty to enjoy in Vogt’s characteristically crisp playing through the rapid passages of the first movement and there were moments of bright lyricism too, music where you almost physically feel a weight lifting off your shoulders. The trumpets gave a forceful introduction to the Andante second movement, but with a skilful diminuendo that pulled us inwards to Vogt’s intimate solo passage that felt like a duet with silence. The final movement was delightfully playful, Vogt playing as if he were just messing around on the keyboard, having fun and taking the orchestra with him. He continued the jazzy mood in his encore, Friedrich Gulda’s Prelude and fugue.

Dvořák’s Seventh Symphony has moments of ominous clouds, but on the whole, Vogt’s approach was to bring out the dancing, joyful aspects of the music, with the storms remaining just a distant threat. The first movement was bold and punchy, with a nice relaxed swing to the solos, until a more thoughtful mood crept in when the opening theme returned. James Burke delivered some lovely clarinet solos: gorgeously autumnal in the opening of the second movement, and then giving us slick, spirited runs in the final movement. The second movement shifted nicely from defiance to quiet triumph, expressed in a singing cello line, although there were some disappointing smudges in the horn section that marred this movement and the finale. I enjoyed the tension in the third movement between a polished ballroom dance and a sense of something more raw and urgent lurking underneath, so that when the elegance returned, it was revealed as just a polished façade. The final movement began with heroic gestures but after crisp brass interjections it turned quickly to an intense joy. As the symphony wound up, Vogt let everything spiral almost out of control before pulling back so that the brass could give their all on Dvořák’s glorious, heart-bursting final bars.