REVIEW: Baroque Christmas by Candlelight, Royal Northern Sinfonia, St Michael's Church, Alnwick

St Michael's Church, Alnwick, set up for Royal Northern Sinfonia's Baroque Christmas by Candlelight.
St Michael's Church, Alnwick, set up for Royal Northern Sinfonia's Baroque Christmas by Candlelight.

What a beautiful way to herald the season of Christmas.

There can be little more enchanting or fitting than a cornucopia of Baroque and festive classics played in a medieval church, sporting a massive Christmas tree.

Member of Royal Northern Sinfonia at St Michael's Church, Alnwick.

Member of Royal Northern Sinfonia at St Michael's Church, Alnwick.

It was a setting that created just the right atmosphere and sparked intense emotion even before the first note was struck.

The Royal Northern Sinfonia and its home, the Sage Gateshead, are reaching out to their hinterland with a programme of popular and lesser known works to celebrate Yuletide.

The orchestra has split into two to deliver different shows and spread their joy through Baroque by candlelight, with St Michael's Church, Alnwick, and St Cuthbert's Chapel in Ushaw, Durham, kicking off the tour on Thursday evening (December 7) and Sunderland Minster hosting the final leg on Wednesday (December 13).

And the verdict - it was an absolute cracker. From the dramatic blast of Vivaldi's Winter from his Four Seasons concerto through to the moody crescendo of Tchaikovsky's String Quartet No 1, via some festive fun with nuggets from the Nutcracker Suite, also by Tchaikovsky, the Alnwick audience was absorbed in the majesty of the occasion.

Director and principal violinist Tristan Gurney was incredible at the helm, playing with such passion and expression. He particularly shone in the opening piece, which was very appropriate on a bitterly cold evening outside. Coupled with Pawel Siwczak on the harpsichord through to Sian Hicks on double bass, the depth of sound was delightful.

The arrangement of Winter, which was written by Vivaldi in around 1725, some 250 years after most of the current church was built, gave the impression of a much larger orchestra as the splendid acoustics of the old building allowed the music to envelope the audience.

It is one of my favourite pieces of classical music and I loved the Northern Sinfonia's interpretation.

Gurney's enthusiasm was infectious and shared by all musicians as their facial contortions and body movements were for more than just keeping warm.

The applause was rapturous after Winter, as the programme moved on to Tchaikovsky's more melodic The Snow Maiden and Arcangelo Corelli's Christmas Concerto.

The brilliant first half was wrapped up with what Gurney described as the 'world premiere' of composer Iain Farrington's arrangement of the Nutcracker Suite, which welcomed the wind section - French horn, flute/piccolo, clarinet, oboe trumpet and the wonderful bassoon - into the fray.

All the familiar tunes, such as the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, Russian Dance and Waltz of the Flowers, were performed with a joyous and playful air by the full 19-piece orchestra, prompting more heartfelt appreciation.

The second half began with a pillar of the Baroque movement, Tomaso Albinoni, and his Concero in B Flat Major for Trumpet and Strings, both elements of which were dreamily good. Richard Martin played some impossibly long passages in a virtuoso performance on the trumpet.

The final piece, described by Gurney as 'pretty epic in places' certainly lived up to the billing and capped a fine, uplifting evening that put a smile on everyone's face in a packed St Michael's Church.

Programme One of the tour continues tonight (Saturday) at St Mary the Virgin, Ponteland; Tuesday (December 12) at St Cuthbert’s Church, Carlisle; and Wednesday (December 13) at Wynyard Hall.

Programme Two will be performed at St George’s Church, Cullercoats, tonight (Saturday); Hexham Abbey on Tuesday (December 12); and Sunderland Minster on Wednesday (December 13).

Directed by violinist Bradley Creswick, Programme Two is TRAD (arr. Creswick) A Celtic Christmas Song; CORELLI Christmas Concerto; VIVALDI ‘Winter’ from The Four Seasons; WALTON ‘Touch her soft lips and part’ from Henry V; TRAD (arr. Creswick) Mr Fezziwig’s Christmas Ball; Interval; PURCELL Trumpet Sonata in D major; PURCELL Fantasia on One Note; MARCELLO Oboe Concerto in D minor; TRAD (arr. Creswick) Creswick’s Christmas Cracker; PURCELL Rondeau and Jig from ‘Abdelazar’.

For more information, visit http://www.sagegateshead.com/event/rns-baroque-tour/