Royal Northern Sinfonia/Cottis – buoyant return with Mozart and an intriguing rarity

Andrew Clements
·2 min read

The autumn season has started late for the Royal Northern Sinfonia – as it has for almost every British orchestra. But this weekend it embarked on an initial seven-week series of concerts in its home auditorium at Sage Gateshead, with a socially distanced audience of around 300 in the concert hall, and an online audience watching via a livestream.

The programmes are a nice mix of reassuringly well-known pieces with rarities and new works. In the opening concert, which was conducted by Jessica Cottis, the familiar feelgood music was by Mozart – the overture to The Marriage of Figaro and the 39th symphony, K549, both given suitably buoyant, if slightly routine performances, with just the occasional moment when the ensemble was not quite as precise as it might have been had the orchestra been playing regularly together for the last seven months.

If a short piece, Strum, by the composer-performer Jessie Montgomerie seemed a disappointingly routine workout for strings here, never conveying the freshness and energy reported for her music, the real collector’s item was Jean Françaix’s Double Bass Concerto, with the RNS’s newly appointed principal double bass, Philip Nelson, as the soloist.

Françaix wrote concertos and chamber music for a huge range of instruments, but unlike Hindemith, another neoclassicist who was equally prolific, he generally did so with a sense of humour. The gruff little march with which the double bass concerto opens is surely tongue-in-cheek, and the lyrical episodes in the later movements seem to have been inserted just to take the solo instrument as far out of its comfort zone as possible, though Nelson obviously relished every opportunity to put it in the spotlight.

The home stream didn’t run as smoothly as those we’ve seen from other orchestras and halls – just teething problems, I’m sure. But it’s a shame the concerts are only being made available online live, and those who pay to watch them are unable to view them again, while others who couldn’t make the live cast, can’t catch up with them later.

Sage Live 2020 continues until December.