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Mozart, Holt, Tchaikovsky: Stephen Reay (Bassoon), Northern Sinfonia, Thomas Zehetmair (Conductor), The Sage, Gateshead/Newcastle upon Tyne, 27.1.2011 (JL)

Mozart Overture: ‘The Magic Flute’
Simon Holt Lilith
Mozart Bassoon Concerto
Tchaikovsky Symphony no.3 ‘Polish’


Good, old fashioned programming this: two popular composers represented in the overture / concerto /symphony format with a “modern” piece smuggled in.


The last time I saw Thomas Zehetmair start a concert by conducting the Magic Flute Overture, he took his bow at the end, exited,  marched back on with a violin under his arm and launched into the Tchaikovsky Concerto. An amazing feat, I thought, summing up his remarkable relationship with the Northern Sinfonia as their Music director.


On this occasion he was to yield the solo spot to his own principal bassoonist. Before that, though, we were treated to an astonishing rendering of  a very  difficult piece, Simon Holt’s 1990 work, Lilith. Lilith was a legendary figure who appears in different versions in several different cultures.  The  lowest common denominator seems to be that Lilith was some sort of female demon, sometimes taking the form of a serpent, who got up to nasty things such as kidnapping or strangling babies. There are connotations with occultism, fantasy and horror, and there is more than a hint of misogyny about it all.


Holt’s piece is suitably sinister, cleverly creating imaginative orchestral effects in an atonal (keyless) harmonic language. It is a big challenge for players but the Sinfonia members met it heroically in a committed and convincing performance. The clarinet player, for example, was having constantly to switch from that instrument, to the high version, and saxophone. I expect considerable rehearsal time had been devoted to the piece, and there was the advantage that the Sinfonia had publicly performed it before in 2009.  The composer was in the audience and, invited on to the stage at the end by Thomas Zehetmair during the applause, I lip read the word “wow” as he looked at the performers. That said it all.


Returning to Mozart we heard Stephen Reay, one the country’s senior and most respected bassoonists, in a relatively light work written when the composer was eighteen.  Numerous bassoon concertos were churned out in the Baroque period, notably by Vivaldi, but after that the form went into serious decline so by 1774 Mozart’s work was a rarity.  Only in recent times has the bassoon concerto made a comeback and Stephen Reay has been prominent in premiering some notable examples. One might expect a certain ponderousness from such a low-lying instrument but Mozart, in the first and last movements of his work, writes some very nimble passage work that can at times be alarming in its technicalities.   The bassoon though does pose balance problems in a concerto, and in spite of the Northern Sinfonia’s relatively small size,  the soloist’s penetrating power in the upper register was limited.  Reay’s instrument compensated in part with some very fruity low notes. The central slow movement brings the best out of Mozart, and also on this occasion, I may say, of Stephen Reay.  The song-like melodic line of the bassoon floats over muted strings and the beauty of Stephen’s lyrical playing was a feature of the evening.


Thomas Zehetmair’s direction of both Mozart pieces was wonderfully paced, particularly excelling in the youthful  joie de vivre of the music but combining that with well phrased lyricism.  Is it too fanciful to believe that Zehetmair’s manifest affinity with Mozart is because he was born in the same place – Salzburg?!


Tchaikovsky’s Third Symphony, nicknamed “The Polish” for no good reason, is not given anything like the airing of the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth. There is certainly a big step forward in symphonic maturity between the 3rd and 4th and there is little sign in the 3rd of the emotion and Tchaikovskyan angst that can be found in the later works.  There are angularities in the construction that pose problems for the conductor. For example, the work opens with a minor key funeral-type march that then jerks into a fast major key section, the transition of which needs careful handling.  Towards the end of the movement Tchaikovsky launches a long, climactic finish characterised by some really furious string playing, the violinists bowing arms blurred with speed.  During the pause before the next movement I noticed some violinists shaking their right arms to get some circulation back. It had been worth it. The excitement was palpable.


At this point, it is worth mentioning that the Sinfonia is an orchestra of classical proportions, on this occasion sporting only 14 violins, not far off  half the number most orchestras would employ in this symphony.   Yet there is no hint of this presenting a balance problem. The characteristic Sinfonia attack must have a lot to do with it, a style led from the front by Bradley Creswick and reinforced by Thomas Zehetmair.   I mentioned misogyny earlier so dare I raise an issue here about female string players. Of the 14 violins, 12 were women.  Andre Previn, when conductor of the LSO, famously put his foot in it by claiming that too many women players would weaken the sound. The great Vienna Philharmonic’s ban on female players was lifted only 13 years ago and even now you would be pushed to spot a woman among the players.   If it had been possible to present the Northern Sinfonia’s current playing as evidence in a case against Previn’s argument, he would have been trounced game, set and match.


John Leeman

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