The Northern Chamber Orchestra’s first concert of 2019 at the Heritage Centre in Macclesfield focused on its two guest soloists: harpist Lucy Wakeford and flautist Katherine Baker, both principals at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. Together they played the ever-popular Concerto for flute and harp by Mozart in the first half and, in a nice piece of programming, each played a shorter French piece for her instrument with strings in the second. It was good to have such a generous contribution from the soloists, giving us the opportunity to hear them in different styles of music. The orchestra was a small one: fifteen strings, joined by two oboes and two horns in the Mozart and the Haydn. As is their normal practice Nicholas Ward, the orchestra’s leader, directed. There was no conductor.

Northern Chamber Orchestra
© Sara Porter Photography

It appears that Mozart was not particularly fond of either the flute or the harp but wrote his concerto as a commission during his stay in Paris from a wealthy flautist to whose harpist daughter he was giving composition lessons. The daughter was not a good student and Mozart was not paid for the concerto. Despite these inauspicious beginnings, Mozart created one of his most elegant and pleasing works and virtually created what now seems to be the obvious pairing of flute and harp. Our two soloists made the most of their chances to shine, both individually and together, and they blended with the orchestra nicely when required. In the graceful slow movement now the flute had the tune with the harp accompanying and then the arrangement was reversed, creating a magical effect. The fine rapport between the two players was evident. And yet, especially in the first movement, the harp was occasionally overpowered by the orchestra and sometimes there were intonation difficulties with the strings. Still, particularly thanks to the Ms Baker and Ms Wakeford, the classical poise, elegance and joie de vivre of the concerto shone through.

After the interval Lucy Wakeford rejoined the orchestra for Debussy’s Danse sacrée et danse profane, curiously another case of a masterpiece arising from a rather prosaic origins, in this case a commission in 1904 to demonstrate the capabilities of the newly invented “chromatic harp”. The instrument did not catch on, but Debussy’s dances have become one of the best-known pieces for harp and orchestra. The sacred dance is rather calm and stately, suggesting a scene of pastoral antiquity with a good deal of Gallic poise. The second dance (“secular” rather than “profane” in its English sense) is gently lilting at the start but becomes more energetic and exhilarating. The whole provides a fine showpiece for the harp and allows the audience to revel in the sounds of an instrument so often hidden in the depths of the orchestra. Lucy Wakeford charmed and delighted an enthusiastic audience.

It was then Katherine Baker’s turn to return to the stage. She played Fauré’s Fantaisie for flute and orchestra (originally for flute and piano), which, like the Debussy, consists of a slow first part and a more lively second part. Ms Baker led us though the flowing melody of the first part and the virtuoso Allegro that followed, showing off the flute’s agility in the context of a stylish and charming showpiece.

The concert opened and closed with two rather different pieces. It is hard to believe that Mendelssohn’s String Symphony no. 10 in B minor was written when the composer was only fourteen. It is mature music (surprisingly energetic and forceful rather than light and airy) and is a regular part of the NCO’s repertoire. Unfortunately this performance was marred by a few rough edges in the string playing.

The concert concluded with Haydn’s Symphony no. 39 in G minor. The NCO had a tradition of playing unfamiliar Haydn symphonies which they continued this evening. In no. 39 they have found a little-known masterpiece and gave it a spirited and enthusiastic performance. Haydn’s unfailing inventiveness was very much to the fore. In the first movement we heard two memorable themes, both of which began in a similar manner. These were interrupted by frequent pauses, leaving the audience guessing as to what would happen next. The elegant second movement often had the orchestra pared down to just two lines and was a model of classical clarity. The minuet brought the horns to the fore. The finale brought perhaps the biggest surprise of all. In contrast with what had gone before we had a disturbing, edgy and intense conclusion, heightened by impassioned playing from the Northern Chamber Orchestra.