Staples of the Romantic repertoire showcased at Manchester’s Stoller Hall

Manchester’s Northern Chamber Orchestra continue to impress. Taking advantage of the impressive acoustics of the city’s relatively new Stoller Hall, they delivered tonight a programme which showcased (albeit with slightly reduced instrumentational scoring i.e. for a chamber orchestra rather than that of a symphony orchestra) a selection of three highly popular works of the Romantic era.

A brief word on the format:- each item on the programme was preceded by a brief introduction given by their Artistic Director and first violin, Nicholas Ward. His commentary was warm, engaging and allowed the audience a useful opportunity to better understand the context of the forthcoming item.

Mendelssohn’s evocative Hebrides Overture commenced the evening’s proceedings and from its tentative and foreboding opening in B minor, the orchestra arguably never really put a foot wrong. Dating from one of the composer’s tours of the British Isles, the overture was written in 1830, before being revised two years later prior to final publication. It was easy to close your eyes and picture the Hebridean landscape – gloomy, yet dramatic; misty fog, shivering temperatures et al.

This is a work which requires careful phrasing and dynamic balance – these players appeared ever mindful of this and the shifting landscapes and contrasting scenes were always deftly executed. This being a chamber orchestra, this was a more intimate performance and special credit must be bestowed upon the clarinettist for their delightfully gentle account of the famous solo – the melodic line was achieved with clarity and smoothness in equal measure. There was perfect synchronisation and opportunities a plenty to pick out all the individual writing – woodwinds in particular.

Tension was built in perfect unison where directed and the 2nd recital of the clarinet melody (subsequently joined by the oboe) was an oasis of calm. Very sweet and languorous with true legato.

Overall, a very capable and well-judged performance.

Next up, an appearance from maestro Freddy Kempf who was renewing his acquaintance with the NCO having first collaborated with them shortly after winning young musician of the year all the way back in 1992. Beethoven’s piano concerti can all be regarded as majestic in their own ways and his 3rd in C minor is no exception.

Famous for having a lengthy exposition before the piano finally enters the fray after almost 5 minutes, the soloist takes up the previous established thematic material and quickly establishes his voice.

Kempf’s playing was strident, assertive and confident throughout. He has always possessed an impeccable technique and has never been afraid to take risks – here he changed gears and employed occasionally daring tempi which served to showcase his outstanding pianism. The cadenza was dashed off with aplomb, almost made to look easy.

The change of key at the start of the 2nd movement must have seemed shocking to contemporary audiences – indeed even here in 2018 it still sounds rather bold. An altogether different tone was required and the orchestra answered the call and employed a far lighter touch and softer volumes. At times, the interplay and balance between soloist and orchestra was exquisite, almost Mozart-like. The music took on a “sospiri” feel – the rising and falling of breathing throughout the many beautiful phrases of the 2nd movement. Kempf executed all of the difficult ornamentation (the many trills especially) flawlessly. A gentle close led to the galloping, yet playful 3rd movement.

The strings weaved together like a shimmering tapestry of sound; Kempf turned to the leader at regular intervals for purposes of synchronisation. A suitably triumphant and thunderous closed the work, although the audience were not quite ready to let him go just yet. A delicate Chopin Waltz served as the olive branch.

In the 2nd half of the programme, another magnificent Beethoven work was performed – the famous Eroica, held by many to be one of the most ground-breaking symphonies ever written. This was again a most enjoyable performance, in part due to the reduced scoring and the resultant “antique sound” which perhaps offered a clue as how this might have sounded in its’ original form.

There is an incredible energy and propulsion to the Eroica which manifests itself in various heavy accents – pleasingly, these were all faithfully delivered by the NCO here. You got the impression that this ensemble really enjoys playing their Beethoven – smiles throughout the orchestra indicated this.

Considering that there is no solo conductor at work here, the chamber orchestra are remarkably self-regulated. The funeral march, although some way quicker than the normally received tempo still contained great reserves of emotion; the scherzo was tremendously delivered, zipping along at breakneck speed but tightly controlled and serving as a true exercise in concentration. Kudos to them all for a complete absence of slips here. Normally, the 4th movement is played “attacca” but here there was a collective pause for breath (and a chance to turn the pages) – no harm done as this was an extremely enjoyable yomp to the finishing line. A highly satisfying and definitive Eb major blast to close the evening’s entertainment.