Concert review

Northern Chamber Orchestra, with Elizabeth Jordan (clarinet)

25th September 2017

The opening concert of the Music Club’s 74th season brought a welcome return of the Northern Chamber Orchestra directed by Nicholas Ward – an event only made possible by sponsorhip from the Arts Council Orchestras Live scheme. Their programme ranged from 18th century Vienna to 20th century England and proved highly entertaining  fare performed with verve and fine musicianship.

Haydn’s Symphony no. 3, an early attempt on his long journey of symphonic writing, reached no great heights but made a civilised start to the evening. The twelve string players and wind section bestowed meticulous attention on phrasing and dynamics, bringing to life one of many rarely heard works by the young Haydn; the lively short fugal finale gave the most interesting insight into Haydn’s penchant for counterpoint.  

Mature Mozart followed – his sublime Clarinet Concerto composed in the last year of his short life. Soloist Elizabeth Jordan explained that he wrote the piece for Anton Stadler and for the basset clarinet, which is larger than the modern instrument and has an extended lower range. She paid tribute to the contemporary maker of her basset clarinet and then gave a memorable performance of this iconic work. The intimacy of a small orchestra without conductor sharing captivating musical ideas with an admirable soloist was more like chamber music (the music of friends)  - far removed from the more dramatic concertos that demand competition between the soloist and the group.

Mozart’s sinuous melodies that suit the clarinet so well were played with elegant refinement in the first movement and affecting tranquillity in the slow movement; his decorative arpeggios always tripped by with merry abandon and the finale sparkled throughout. The clear instrumental balance seemed to manage itself without effort and, needless to say, the low register notes unavailable to the modern clarinet were one fascinating bonus of sheer delight. But that is what Mozart wrote so why would any clarinettist want to play this masterpiece on the wrong instrument?

Alan Rawsthorne’s Elegiac Rhapsody for strings was written as a tribute to Louis MacNeice after he died in 1963. The contrasting moods of sadness and anger emerged from complex part writing and rhythms, starting very softly but rising to impressive climaxes. Led with authority by Nicholas Ward this was a fine performance of deeply felt music which demanded total commitment from each player. They certainly rose to the challenge – and full marks for programming an unfamiliar but stimulating piece.  

Another youthful symphony brought the concert to a close. Schubert was 19 when he wrote his bubbling  5th Symphony; it looks back to the examples of Haydn and Mozart but hints every now and then at his later style. This was a performance  that  sent everyone home cheered up – a first movement of animated conversation and singable melodies, a slow movement that  moved forward elegantly, a minuet of energy and pathos and a finale that set off at a cracking pace but was always under control. The Northern Chamber Orchestra is 50 this year and maintains the highest standard of playing: a concert to celebrate and a splendid start to the Music Club’s season.

John Upson



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