“Schubert’s Great” proclaimed the playful title for last night’s Royal Northern Sinfonia concert. This was certainly what Benjamin Britten felt about Schubert and, judging by last night’s vivacious performance of his Symphony no. 9 “The Great”, I suspect it’s a sentiment shared by the Royal Northern Sinfonia.

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

The Ninth is a monumental work; it’s not just that it’s relatively long, but the work needs unbroken, focussed energy to keep the listener’s attention through all the repeated melodies. Schubert wrote the work as a response to Beethoven’s Ninth, taking inspiration from Beethoven, rather than allowing himself to be overshadowed by him. Schubert’s new-found confidence in his symphonic writing emerged clearly in the orchestra’s performance. Guest conductor Paul Watkins was firm and decisive, creating a more muscular sound than we sometimes hear from this orchestra.

The horn solo that opens the symphony was warm and expansive, setting the mood for the rest of the movement, which flowed along in a great river of sound. This sense of purpose was carried through into the second movement Andante con moto. Schubert’s principal theme here feels like a private tune someone might hum whilst working, thoughtful and industrious but always on the move, until screeching to an abrupt halt. These big moments of extreme dynamic contrast occur a few times during the symphony, and were done well, and I loved the great swell and fall of the chords that ended the Adagio. Overall though, I would have preferred a little more variety of mood; the Scherzo, in particular, could have benefited from a lighter touch before the blaze of glory that is the final Allegro. The Royal Northern Sinfonia was heroic here, strings and trombones egging each other on to the thunderous ending.

Henry Purcell was another composer Britten thought was great, and whilst there are plenty of concerts that pair Britten up with one or other of these two composers who had so much influence on his music, I think this was the first time I’ve heard all three together. Purcell’s Chacony in G Minor, in Britten’s string orchestra transcription, held its own against the other two monstrous works on the programme. Watkins imbued the piece with a dark menace, building up the tension with a strong repeated bass line and rich string texture; there was a constant sense that the music was going to explode into something very powerful, but instead it fades away, leaving just a tiny spark of light, the perfect set-up for the complexities of Britten's Cello Symphony that followed.

I’ve written before about the problems of performing and listening to works that were written for a specific musician, and then recorded by that person, and how this is particularly dangerous territory with Britten. The beauty of music is that it is a living art form; we take those little dots off the page; we create something new and personal with each performance and so the music stays alive, growing, developing, not frozen forever like a painting on a gallery wall. This was demonstrated brilliantly this evening by cellist Louisa Tuck and her former teacher Paul Watkins, both of whom took this demandingly complex work and made it their own.

Louisa Tuck lent the cello part grace, lyricism and richness and this gave the piece much more coherence than when it’s played more aggressively. Having one of the key members of the orchestra playing the solo cello part gave the piece the unity implied by its title – this was not a concerto-style performance with a star soloist dropping in to do battle with the orchestra, but a team of musicians. This came out particularly in the powerful opening, when cello and the bass orchestra instruments strive together to set the music in motion.

Among the highlights in this great performance, the whirling cello part of the second movement, began like a drunken muttering in the corner, ignoring everyone else and gradually coming to the fore, winding up to breaking point in a terrifying loss of control. The solid minor chords in the strings of the third movement took us briefly back to Purcell before leading into a plangent intimate cello line, brimming with the sense of broken innocence that Britten so often explores. The insouciant cheeriness that opens the final movement can create a shockingly abrupt change of mood, but Watkins cleverly avoided this by having the trumpets pick up on the calm serenity of the cadenza, leading us gently into the sunshine. That cheerfulness doesn’t last long though, a note of wistfulness returns, but the final bars suggested an ecstatic sense of achievement, the successful end of a difficult journey not just for the players, but for us as listeners.

****1