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Review: From These Isles, Royal Northern Sinfonia, Sage Gateshead

Rob Barnes takes in a chamber concert in the intimate surroundings of Hall Two featuring works from Holst, Stanford and Elgar

Royal Northern Sinfonia Chamber tour
Royal Northern Sinfonia Chamber tour

This chamber concert in the intimate surroundings of Hall Two at Sage Gateshead featured three composers from the British Isles, Holst, Stanford and Elgar, with works written in the early years of the 20th century, and performed by some of Royal Northern Sinfonia’s principal players.

Holst’s development as a composer was undoubtedly influenced by his work as an orchestral brass-player, and it was only after his marriage that he forsook the playing to concentrate on composition.

His 1903 Wind Quintet showed his experience and appreciation of how wind instruments work well together, with flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon and horn all given their moments to shine, but never to the point of imposing themselves individually.

Holst’s tutor at the Royal College of Music, the Dublin-born Charles Villiers Stanford, is regarded as one of these islands’ finest choral and orchestral composers, even though he felt he was sidelined during his lifetime. His 1905 Serenade in F for nine instruments thoroughly proved the point about his compositional skills.

The instruments used in the Holst piece, without the oboe, were supplemented by a small string section of violins, viola, cello, and double bass. It was a full, rich and beautifully crafted work, always melodic and sometimes light-hearted. In his introduction, orchestra leader Bradley Creswick described it as a work ’we’ve come to love’ – and it showed. Classic turn of the century British music, played consummately well.

One of the reasons that Stanford never flourished at that time as a composer was the emergence of Edward Elgar, whose longest chamber work, the Piano Quintet in A minor from 1919, was featured as the second half of this concert. It comes across more as a string quartet piece with added piano.

But it’s almost orchestral in scale, from its strangely misty and gothic opening movement, through to the composer’s more traditionally poignant use of strings in the work’s subsequent parts. It was a winner all round, and received enthusiastically.

This ongoing series of chamber concerts continues to gather pace and plaudits, due in large measure to some inspired programming of mature but seldom heard works.

The concert was recorded for a Classic FM broadcast in due course.

Rob Barnes


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