Manchester’s Northern Chamber Orchestra continues to impress. Taking advantage of the impressive acoustics of the city’s relatively new Stoller Hall, it delivered a programme which showcased a selection of three highly popular works of the Romantic era. Each item was preceded by a brief introduction given by Artistic Director, Nicholas Ward. His commentary was warm, engaging and allowed the audience a useful opportunity to better understand the context of the forthcoming item.

Freddy Kempf
© IMG Artists

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.

It requires careful phrasing and dynamic balance; the players appeared ever mindful of this and the shifting landscapes and contrasting scenes were deftly executed. This being a chamber orchestra, this was a more intimate performance and special credit must be bestowed upon the clarinettists for a 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 repeat of the clarinet melody was an oasis of calm, sweet and languorous with true legato.

Next, an appearance from maestro Freddy Kempf, renewing his acquaintance with the NCO having first collaborated with them shortly after winning BBC Young Musician of the Year in 1992. Beethoven’s piano concertos can all be regarded as majestic in their own ways and his C minor Third is no exception. There is a lengthy exposition before the piano finally enters the fray, taking up the previous established thematic material and quickly establishing his voice.

Kempf’s playing was 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 second 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 Mozartian. The music took on a sighing feel with the rising and falling of its many beautiful phrases. Kempf executed all of the difficult ornamentations (the many trills especially) flawlessly. The strings weaved together like a shimmering tapestry of sound in the finale. Kempf turned to the leader at regular intervals for purposes of synchronisation. A suitably triumphant and thunderous close, although the audience were not quite ready to let him go just yet. A delicate Chopin Waltz served as the olive branch.

In the second half of the programme, another magnificent Beethoven work was performed – the famous Eroica Symphony, held by many to be one of the most ground-breaking ever written. This was again a most enjoyable performance, in part due to the reduced scoring and the resulting “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. You got the impression that this ensemble really enjoys playing their Beethoven – smiles throughout the orchestra indicated this.

Considering that there was no conductor here, the orchestra was 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 fourth 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 E flat major blast to close the evening’s entertainment.