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Review: Beethoven Symphony No. 2, Royal Northern Sinfonia, Sage Gateshead

Mario Venzago and Sage Gateshead's resident orchestra give scintillating concert broadcast live on BBC Radio 3

****
Neda Navaee Concert pianist Freddy Kempf
Concert pianist Freddy Kempf

Not just a concert comprising a pair of robust Beethoven bookends and some racy French 20th Century works in between, but also a celebration of the panache of the Swiss Mario Venzago – affectionately known as ‘Super Mario’ – who was made the orchestra’s principal conductor in 2010.

This doyen of the podium didn’t let his audience or musicians down, providing yet another masterclass in the art of animated and involving leadership.

Beethoven’s 2nd was the headline work, as the year-long cycle draws to its June 12 conclusion.

This is a relatively orderly work, different in character from its ground-breaking predecessor, but showing the composer’s developing skill in symphonic writing while also having to confront personal problems, not least increasing deafness.

The work takes us on a journey through its four movements, from reflective to confident to witty and finally to its grand, assured finale. The musicians brought out its moods wonderfully well.

There was a shorter piece from Beethoven’s repertoire, his Coriolan Overture, to begin the concert.

This was written to accompany a production of Heinrich von Collin’s drama about the banished Roman patrician Coriolanus, who came back to take the city with an army.

The work brings out his lust for revenge, and then his being stopped in his tracks by his mother’s pleas, resulting in a fatal hesitation. The music conveyed the moods perfectly and was finely played.

London-born Freddy Kempf, guest soloist, plays piano to sell-out audiences across the world. On this occasion he was playing to the world in yet another BBC Radio 3 live broadcast from the venue.

Maurice Ravel freely admitted to “borrowing from jazz, but only in moderation” for his piano concerto in G. The influences of George Gershwin were evident but Ravel was his own man, bringing humour and elegant style to this enthralling work.

The serene second movement was at odds with the fast and rhythmical first and third, but brought out the best in Kempf’s sensitive playing style, whilst also providing some lovely duet moments with Juliette Bausor’s flute and Michael O’Donnell’s cor anglais – a delightful mix of Parisian left bank and Broadway bustle.

The evening’s second French composition, Darius Milhaud’s Le Boeuf Sur Le Toit (‘the ox on the roof’), was inspired by Rio de Janeiro while he was working at the French embassy there.

Heady, chaotic, even slightly drunken, it reflects the revelry of carnival. It was obviously a joy to play and conduct.

The next and penultimate Beethoven symphony at the Sage is the 8th, on May 14.

Rob Barnes

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