There were two very different reasons why I chose to go to last night’s Royal Northern Sinfonia concert at Sage Gateshead, which themselves highlighted the odd duality of the programme. The first reason was the chance to hear string orchestra works by Shostakovich and Stravinsky. The second was that the programme offered a chance to hear soprano Elizabeth Watts.

Elizabeth Watts © Marco Borggreve
Elizabeth Watts
© Marco Borggreve
Stravinsky wrote his Concerto in D for in 1946 for the 20th anniversary of the Basel Orchestra. It’s a beautifully crafted work which looks back to the Baroque concerto grosso: three contrasting dances with the spotlight falling alternately on the ensemble and on small solo groups. Directed from the leader’s chair by Kyra Humphreys, Royal Northern Sinfonia’s strings were crisp and tight. During the quieter middle section of the first movement the orchestra kept the musical line beautifully sustained through Stravinsky’s fragments and pauses, before the music returned to jazzier rhythms and some exciting solo work from first the cellos and basses, then the upper strings. There was more of this to enjoy in the restless, buzzing third movement too.

Anyone who thinks that Stravinsky is all spiky rhythms and noise should consider the second movement of the Concerto in D: Royal Northern Sinfonia glided gracefully through this wistfully nostalgic waltz, summoning up a lost era of long gloves and taffeta, that must have seemed even more poignant when it was first played in post-war Europe.

Rudolf Barshai’s arrangements of some of Shostakovich’s string quartets, such as Chamber symphony in A flat, from the Tenth Quartet, require the players to combine the very private world of Shostakovich’s quartet writing with the public statements of his symphonies, and I felt that Royal Northern Sinfonia were keeping this duality in mind. The outer movements were outward looking; the first filled with menace, and the fourth seeming to find a way forwards, particularly towards the end when the cellos and basses sang out the theme passionately under the twitchy violins. There was bright optimism too in Kyra Humphreys’s final solo, the middle movements though were intimately raw, a frighteningly public exposure of misery. The violence of the second movement was utterly terrifying, beating relentlessly at the doors to the darkest corners of the mind. After that, the third movement feels like a healing balm but Royal Northern Sinfonia quickly made it clear that this was a very bleak, icy comfort, full of sadness.

Two songs by Richard Strauss provided the unifying force of the programme, a bridge between the serious orchestral music and the lighter arias by Mozart. Elizabeth Watts and Kyra Humphreys must have established an amazingly trusting musical bond during their time working together on this concert, where Watts was standing in front of the orchestra, beyond eye contact with any of the players. Her voice sprang gloriously from nowhere into the unaccompanied opening of Ich wollt ein Sträußlein binden; she was flexible and strong through Strauss’ flourishes but still maintaining a touching delicacy, with the oboes adding a sweet wistfulness. The partnership between Watts and Humphreys was at its strongest during the second song, Morgen! – the vocal line rising quietly above the delicate cobweb thread of the solo violin to magical effect. I was absolutely spellbound.  

After the tender and intense emotion of the Strauss songs, it seemed only fair for Elizabeth Watts to have fun singing some frivolous Mozart concert arias where she was able to show off both her formidably agile technique and her dramatic skills, and although I wasn’t convinced that these lollipops would sit well with the rest of the programme, the Exsultate jubilate at the end of the concert after the intense Shostakovich at least meant that I went home smiling. Royal Northern Sinfonia have a strand running through this year’s season called "reclaiming Mozart", in which they aim to dispel the popular images of Mozart as either a box of chocolates or a bad boy, but however enjoyable, these arias only confirm my prejudices when they’re set against Strauss, Stravinsky and Shostakovich. Watts added lyricism to the long elaborate lines of Se tutti I mali miel although one or two of her high notes sounded slightly forced. She followed this with a wonderfully dramatic Voi avete un cor fedele, saucy on one repeat, resigned on the next and always acting the role of a passionate Italianate diva. In both this and the Exultate, bright colours from the oboes and horns offset the warmth of the strings, the sunny lines of the orchestra matching Watts’s vocal brilliance. Exsultate jubilate simply brimmed over with happiness from both singer and orchestra; the whole thing was fresh, natural and honest, with a massive dose of irreverence to enliven the famous Alleluias at the end.