‘The Romantics’ by Lars Vogt with Royal Northern Sinfonia at Sage, Gateshead on 16th April 2015

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Conducting from the piano is hard. A pianist-conductor has a back to the audience, and the giant percussive instrument has to squeeze in between the front desks of the strings. And of course there’s the mammoth responsibility of keeping the orchestra together and playing the cadenzas. But it came off wonderfully with Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor on Thursday. The Royal Northern Sinfonia was confident and Lars Vogt was fully prepared to use all his body to convey the music.

That’s not to say the musicians weren’t watching their new Music Director like eagles. The Schumann, though, is Classical on the cusp of Romantic in style. Which means in practice that the structure of music gives the piano and orchestra complementary roles, almost question and answer. This lent itself nicely to Vogt conducting a spot here, then filling in some fluttering semiquavers in response. Even the tempo changes, the potential danger moments in any piece, felt measured and controllable. At the same time, and not to give the wrong impression of Schumann’s popular work, there was plenty of space in the performance for Vogt to encourage the woodwind to enjoy solos and to pull around the ends of phrases.

Yet this wasn’t just about the pianist/conductor-orchestra relationship; Lars Vogt is a passionate and gentle pianist, with a soft touch to his playing that I greatly enjoyed. There was something really special at the start of the Schumann as the entire audience in Hall One breathed in with wonder at the electricity on stage between Vogt and the RNS. It made me sit up and I remained glued to his fingers until the shining oboe and clarinet solos came in later in the first movement, distracting me from the piano momentarily.

The concert opened with Janáček’s Concertino for piano, horn, clarinet, bassoon, violins and viola. A curious little work which may not have convinced all audience members, as you might expect Janáček is playful and testing of the usual limits of chamber music. The piano is clearly in charge throughout whilst the other instruments are permitted to come in one movement at a time. Particularly fun was the entry of the Eb clarinet in the second movement, which whizzed up and down its diminutive form. Perhaps a work better suited to the intimate atmosphere of Hall Two, there was nevertheless a magical moment at the end of the piece when the piano was muted.

Dvořák gave the final challenge of the night for Vogt as he stepped up to the podium, piano now removed from the stage. Opening gently with cellos and horns, Dvořák’s 8th Symphony at first appeared somewhat melancholic but very shortly the flute ushered in the cascading strings and the work took off. Vogt’s enthusiasm and joy in the Czech composer’s optimistic work was catching and the RNS swept along through it, as always giving the impression of a much larger ensemble. The sumptuous slow Adagio was a particular highlight, where, despite the difficulties of keeping perfectly in sync, Vogt encouraged a real tenderness out of the orchestra. His conducting style is expressive rather than demonstrative, but his investment in the music is total and you could sense the work he and the orchestra had put in together.

Lars Vogt looked comfortable up there and I think we got a glimpse of the exciting new direction the Royal Northern Sinfonia will be moving in. But don’t take my word for it, go along and make your own mind up! The next Classical Season has just been launched at the Sage and we’re all in for a treat with musical journeys into Sibelius and Mozart as well as a focus on pre-Classical “Early Encounters”, with visits from some really exciting performers, including Christian Tetzlaff, the Hallé under Sir Mark Elder, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, and of course RNS’s own Principal Guest Conductor the violinist Julian Rachlin.

Reviewer: Katie Lodge

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