22 February 2020

A performance beyond outstanding

Royal Northern Sinfonia – Beethoven 250th Anniversary Concert 22nd February 2020

There are occasions when performances reach such a high standard that conventional, everyday adjectives are inadequate to describe them. The recent concert given by the Royal Northern Sinfonia in the Westmorland Hall was such an occasion. ‘Outstanding’ fails to describe what we heard: perhaps awe-inspiring or breath-taking would be more appropriate This Beethoven 250th Anniversary Concert contained the composer’s seventh and eighth symphonies and his first piano concerto. The orchestra was directed by Lars Vogt who appeared in a dual role as solo pianist and conductor.

Beethoven’s music is, of course, magnificent, and the orchestral playing, too, throughout the evening was equally so. But what was added to the mix was a musical director who clearly loved the music, had an intimate knowledge of it, and a wonderful ability to communicate his passion to players and audience alike. His attention to detail was so impressive: Beethoven’s dynamic marking were faithfully observed; melodic phrases were beautifully shaped with a clear sense of direction and the performances had energy. His energetic, balletic conducting style left his players in no doubt about what he wanted; but what was also clear was the huge respect the orchestra had for his musicianship, demonstrated not only in his conducting but in his skill as a pianist.

The concert opened with the eighth symphony, said to have been written as a tribute to Beethoven’s teacher, Haydn. However, stylistically, the symphony goes far beyond Haydn. with its extreme range of dynamic markings and sudden contrasts. At one stage, for example, the orchestra is directed to play even louder than the fortissimo markings found in Haydn, and forte/piano markings appear in close juxtaposition throughout the score. One feature that marked out this fine, buoyant performance was the rhythmic precision of the orchestra’s playing: every staccato note was carefully placed and controlled.

Next came the master’s ‘first’ piano concerto published in 1795. Lars Vogt drove this on at a brisk speed and when the moment came for the conventional cadenza he seemed to enter into his own world as he produced an amazing lengthy elaboration of Beethoven’s ideas in a display of technical wizardry; his inner excitement became externalised in some left foot stamping as he got towards the end. The pianissimo playing in the middle movement was beautiful and the finale was an exciting world wind. Not surprisingly, the performance drew huge applause making a solo encore inevitable, a sensitive performance of a Brahms Intermezzo.

The concert closed with a dramatic performance of the seventh symphony, again driven on with great energy, showing attention to detail with outstanding playing from all sections of the orchestra. All a worthy tribute to a genius!

Clive Walkley 24th February 2020