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Review: Royal Northern Sinfonia/Jaime Martin and Paul Lewis, Hall One, Sage Gateshead

The classical season finale saw Beethoven's third symphony paired with a Brahms piano concerto to wonderful effect

The Royal Northern Sinfonia Orchestra
The Royal Northern Sinfonia Orchestra

There was definitely no end of season feel to this end of season concert, when the last piece of the Beethoven jigsaw was pressed firmly into place in the Sage’s Hall One on Friday evening, thanks to a performance of the composer’s third symphony as the venue celebrated the end of its 2014/15 classical season.

The concert completed a full cycle of nine such works played out over as many months. And, just as with another concert back in October, a Beethoven symphony was paired with a Brahms Piano Concerto – and how well these two epic creations spark off each other.

Beethoven’s Sinfonia Eroica – or Heroic Symphony – originally had Napoleon Bonaparte’s name on the title page, but the composer changed the dedication at the last minute to the Bohemian prince who paid a handsome fee for the privilege.

Eroica must have come like a bolt out of the blue to audiences in the early 19th century.

It breaks the mold in many ways, not least of all its length, at around twice that of comparable works by immediate forebears, Mozart and Haydn, but also in that it’s a real game changer, pointing classical music firmly in the direction of its Romantic period later in that century.

The evening’s conductor was Spain’s Jaime Martin, who, having spent much time in the ranks as a flautist, knows exactly what it takes to energise musicians.

From the dramas of Eroica’s opening two movements – the second, which is a slow funeral march, was particularly excellent with great depth of tone and feeling - to the scherzo and the allegro in its concluding two, Martin brought out all of the conflicts and moods in fine fashion.

Brahms’ Piano Concerto 1 was initially pencilled in as his first symphony, but the composer said that he was still haunted by ‘the footsteps of a giant’ in Beethoven, so instead this became his first work for piano and orchestra, with his first symphony having to wait more than twenty years.

The guest soloist for the evening, Liverpool-born Paul Lewis, has established himself as one of leading English pianists of his generation, and what a delight to witness his precision and power in a remarkable and brilliant performance.

For all of the passion in the music, he played with an admirable lack of histrionics.

The exquisitely emotional and superbly detailed adagio movement leaves the listener in little doubt of Brahms’ influence on later composers, whilst the familiar final movement, full of flair and spirit, rounded it all off perfectly, to the delight of the near-capacity audience.

There was even time for a pre-concert encore, in the form of a single movement from Mozart’s Symphony 25 (the full version features in the first concert of the 2015/16 season on September 18), as a thank-you from the venue to its ticket-buying public.

So, a really classy season finale. Now it’s out with the Beethoven and in with the Sibelius, whose first contribution to next season’s special symphony cycle plays out on October 22.

Rob Barnes


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