Sunshine and glee from the Royal Northern Sinfonia at the Proms

United KingdomUnited Kingdom BBC Proms 2022 [16], Prom 37 – Haydn, Vaughan Williams, Kaija Saariaho, Beethoven: Nicholas Daniel (oboe), Maria Włoszczowska (violin), Royal Northern Sinfonia / Dinis Sousa (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, 14.8.2022. (CS)

Nicholas Daniel (oboe), Dinis Sousa (conductor) and the Royal Northern Sinfonia

Haydn – Symphony No.6 in D major, ‘Le matin’
Vaughan Williams
– Oboe Concerto in A minor
Kaija SaariahoVers toi qui es si loin (London premiere)
Beethoven – Symphony No. 4 in B flat major

Not all of the nicknames affectionately bestowed upon Haydn’s symphonies are equally apt.  Titles such as ‘Surprise’, ‘Drum-roll’ and ‘Farewell’ might serve their purpose well, but ‘Laudon’ (a reference to an Austrian war hero, appended by Haydn’s publisher to increase sales) and ‘Schoolmaster’ (somewhat dubiously said by Harold Robbins Landon to refer to the wagging figure of the eponymous pedant conjured by a dotted rhythm in the second movement) are less pertinent.  But, ‘Le matin’ is the perfect epithet for the composer’s Sixth Symphony, one of three (the others being ‘Le midi’ and ‘Le soir’) that Haydn composed in 1761 for Prince Anton Esterházy, naming them after the ceiling paintings in the concert room of the Palace in Eisenstadt where they were first performed.

That was surely a good way of honouring and impressing Haydn’s new employer.  And, the first movement of ‘Le matin’, which opens with the evocation of a slow sunrise in a manner reminiscent of The Creation and The Seasons, was the perfect way to start this morning Prom by the Royal Northern Sinfonia under its Principal Conductor Dinis Sousa.  The concert was listed under the ‘Classical for Starters’ umbrella, and the 11am start evidently made it accessible for younger music enthusiasts, though late, and noisy, arrivals marred the start of each of the Haydn movements – and the decision to run the 90-minute concert without an interval inevitably meant there was lots of to-ing and fro-ing up the aisles of the stalls in the latter part of the performance.

But, the Royal Northern Sinfonia certainly showed us that mid-morning music is brilliant fun.  Haydn would probably have had about sixteen players in his ensemble, and this was quite a large string ensemble of 8/6/4/4/2, but the strength of the sound was welcome in the barn of the auditorium – although Sousa did have a tendency, in both the Haydn and Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony which closed the programme, to push for dynamic extremes.  From my perch in the top row of the Stalls, the pianissimos were sometimes barely there.

The unity of the whole was impressive though.  As was the collaborative spirit that both Sousa and leader Maria Włoszczowska so obviously garnered.  At the start of the opening Adagio, the first violins who usher in the wisps of a waking world didn’t just play as one but moved as one too, like a perfectly ‘in tune’ ballet de corps.  Then, when the Allegro was unleashed, Włoszczowska’s vitality helped to ensure that attacks were crisp and phrasing was meticulous, while the solo flute’s and oboe’s shared first theme was bright and cheery.  Throughout, Sousa set brisk but judicious tempi, not so much beating time but using his hands expressively to convey weight, balance, emphasis and character.

Haydn had in his employer some of the finest Viennese freelancers of his day, and he put them to good use in ‘Le matin’, which is effectively a concertante symphony with flute, bassoon, violin, cello, horn and even double bass taking centre-stage at times.  The RNS soloists surely matched the panache of those Viennese forebears, relishing the virtuosity.  In the strings-only second movement, Włoszczowska and cellist Steffan Morris shaped a supple, expressive concertante conversation in the central Andante, which had a lovely gallant grace.  Flautist Charlotte Ashton danced nimbly, with cheeky mordants and delicately prancing arpeggios in the Menuet, while it was the turn of bassoonist Stephen Reay and double bass player Philip Nelson to show us how light they could be on the toes in the Trio.  Haydn makes more of a single, rising, racing scale than one might thing possible in the Finale and the RNS relished the exuberance – soloistic virtuosity and ensemble unity were equally notable and exciting.

By now the sun was well and truly high in the sky and shining with force and fire.  Its energy fuelled Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony with similar glee.  By the closing item of the concert, there was no doubt that these musicians were really enjoying themselves.  The introductory Adagio was not so much mysterious as portentous, the deliberate articulation creating tension, the harmonic roving and feeling very ‘modern’.  But, the Allegro brought release and bubbled with joy, dynamic opposites pulled as far apart as they could be, syncopations stretched to their elastic breaking point.  Sousa could ‘clean’ the textural palette when required, though, to create freshness and air.  It was all terrifically exciting.

The slow movement felt a little ‘pressed’; I’d have liked more breadth and nobility, but Sousa seemed to be seeking to bring the innate energy of the music to the fore and in this he succeeded, conjuring restless chattering and surging swells which subsided into the clarinet’s lovely melodising and pseudo-extemporising.  The Scherzo’s cross-currents rippled but perhaps not quite as playfully as they could have done, though there was a wiry muscularity that was persuasive.  Sousa breezily waved aside the ’ma no troppo’ instruction in the concluding Allegro, which fizzed.  One won’t often here more tidy, nifty, colourful fiddle-playing that this.  But, that’s not to neglect the other superb contributions – and, one has to say that timpanist Jude Carlton was the star of the show.

Between the Classical bookends there was more coolness and shade.  Vaughan Williams’ Oboe Concerto is a stamina-fest for the soloist and Nicholas Daniel was more than equal to the challenges. The pastoral piping sang with honeyed sweetness, though the tone was never overly sumptuous, retaining a note of restraint, and Sousa reined back the sentimentality of the string colouring.  Not afraid to seek the most whispering pianos, Daniel’s projection into roomy auditorium was impressively penetrating.  In the Rondo pastorale he displayed an insightful awareness of how the lines unfold from musing and lyrical meandering to envigored dancing, the staccato accents of the latter punchy and bright.  And, Sousa let the strings unfold and wrap around the soloist’s melody, unobtrusively but with concision and focus.  There was a slight pungency to the Minuet, the strings’ counterpoint and pizzicato buoyant and pert; the Musette was more rustic and raucous, aptly so, letting in a flow of warm which flourished in the lyricism of the Finale’s Lento poetry – the latter bathing in an easy glow of summer sunshine.

There was a more ecstatic passion in Kaija Saariaho’s Vers toi qui es si loin – a wordless love song for solo violin and orchestra adapted from the final scene of Saariaho’s first opera L’amour de loin (2000).  It’s ‘a prayer to the dead lover identified with a God whose name can only be Love’, and it’s a prayer of timbres and textures which Sousa let speak for themselves – some terrific harp playing from Celine Saout, and discerning string articulations from the RNS – as Włoszczowska ventured through Saariaho’s soul-consuming extended lines with penetrating focus.  This was an intense, wrought diffusion of the stratospheric song.

In the final bars, Włoszczowska turned off her stand-light, lowered the stand, re-took her leader’s seat, and – the shared Bb offering a link – Beethoven’s first movement emerged from the violin’s hovering last phrase, a phrase described in Paul Griffiths’ programme note as ‘the desire for the distant beloved … musically realised as a seeking for rest, for folding into a keynote that cannot be found … the violin lifts further and further, into the ethereal …’  If anything needs to be left to linger and tell, this phrase – a song of love, longing and grief – does.  It was the only wrong step in a brilliant RNS performance.

Claire Seymour

3 thoughts on “Sunshine and glee from the Royal Northern Sinfonia at the Proms”

  1. I don’t agree with the reviewer that the emergence of the first movement of the Beethoven was a wrong step. For me it was a wonderful moment in this brilliantly performed concert.

    • Thank you for your comment, Kathy. I guess this is what makes live music so exciting, isn’t it? That people respond in different ways to particular details. I hope that my review reflects your own opinion that this was indeed an excellent performance from all involved.


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