The Northern Chamber Orchestra concluded its season of monthly concerts at the Heritage Centre in Macclesfield with an intriguing programme entitled Springtime in Italy. It covered three centuries of Italian music in eight pieces (including an encore) by composers, six of whom were Italian. This was, however, no academic investigation into a national style of composition but a hugely enjoyable concert of a wide variety of works.

The most significant work in the first half was also the least known piece in the concert. Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco was prolific and highly esteemed composer (and teacher) but his music is now hardly ever performed. A search on Bachtrack brings up reviews of only two of his works in the last few years. This evening’s performance of his Guitar Concerto no. 1 in D major shows that we have been missing out on some substantial and approachable music. This concerto was written in 1939 for Segovia and was one of a large number of works that Castelnuovo-Tedesco wrote for guitar. In 1939 the composer was about to leave Italy for the USA in the light of the worsening position for Jews in Italy. The political environment is not, however, reflected in this sunny, neoclassical piece which encapsulates the theme of Springtime in Italy. The second movement in particular is full of light. It is said to be the composer’s farewell to Florence and is based on Italian folksongs. Our soloist was the eminent guitarist Craig Ogden who delighted in the technical challenges of the solo part and created a great variety of sonorities from his instrument. The composer gave the soloist generous opportunities for display in each movement, and Ogden made the most of them. The audience loved the work. We were rewarded with as an encore Piazzolla’s Libertango in a version for guitar and strings.

The other main work on the programme was Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto no. 3 in G major which brought the evening to a close. The link with Italy might be a little tenuous (Bach’s concerto style was modelled on that of Vivaldi) but given such a fine performance as we heard this evening no-one could complain. This is a piece that the NCO performs regularly and our nine string players plus harpsichord continuo seemed completely at home with this joyful work and imbued every phrase with meaning.

The Bach was not the only Baroque piece on the programme. The evening began with the Concerto Grosso Op.6 no. 1 in D major by the hugely influential Corelli, dating from 1714. Its four short movements contrasted fast and slow music and set off music played by a group of soloists against music played by the whole ensemble. The concerto was given a spirited performance by a group of 12 strings with harpsichord continuo, directed, as was the whole of the concert, by Nicholas Ward, the orchestra’s leader.

The concert included a fourth concerto, this time by Vivaldi. The Concerto alla rustica RV151 does not display any of the features either of the concerto grosso or the concerto for soloist and orchestra for which Vivaldi is best known. The Presto opening movement, whose country-dance rhythms gave rise to the work’s nickname, was followed by a brief slow movement. A return to a faster tempo brought the piece to a swift conclusion. The whole thing was over in a few minutes; a delightful amuse-bouche to start the second half.

In the first half, following the Corelli in a startling piece of juxtaposition, we also had Puccini’s I crisantemi, one of the composer’s very few works not for the opera house. It is a short piece originally for string quartet, played tonight in the version for string orchestra. It was an elegy written for a funeral (on the continent chrysanthemums are usually considered as flowers for funerals) and was a moving piece with long melodic lines. The composer later reused some of the material in his opera Manon Lescaut.

The remaining two works were taken from operas and are normally played by larger forces but the NCO did them justice. The strings are to the fore in the Prelude to Verdi’s Aida and even if the whole brass section was represented by a single horn the sound of the NCO filled the hall.  The strings also carry the powerful melodies of the Intermezzo from Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana and the orchestra created the sense of tragic foreboding appropriate to the opera.

All in all this concert was a splendid conclusion to the series in an enterprising and engaging selection of works with a star soloist in an undeservedly rare concerto.