The Northern Chamber Orchestra’s concert in the Macclesfield Heritage Centre began with Johann Strauss II’s Emperor Waltz. Who could resist the gorgeous melodies of one of Strauss’ most substantial and popular works? The NCO injected appropriate brio into the piece. It was good to hear it alongside more serious works and it was an ideal opener to a concert entitled Echoes of Vienna.

Steven Osborne © Benjamin Ealovega
Steven Osborne
© Benjamin Ealovega

The title applied in particular to the least known piece on the programme, Anthony Gilbert’s Another Dream Carousel which opened the second half. This was a work lasting about 8 minutes for strings alone. In 1938, when Gilbert was four years old, a Jewish-Viennese refugee came to live with his family. Another Dream Carousel reflects on events in Vienna at that time. Gilbert uses the device of setting the lower instruments, representing the oppressors, against the upper strings, the victims. The programme note explained that the first of the three sections can be seen as the oppressors swaggering and chasing the victims (the violins). The middle section is a more straightforward waltz (the victims “try to quell their fear with musical entertainments and dancing”). In the final section they are eventually led away. The piece begins with a solo double bass and builds up in volume and intensity in a distorted waltz until the “real” waltz of the central section takes over. The final section has more in common with the first and ends as the work began, with a double bass, but not before a final cry of hope from the higher strings. The piece was premiered by the NCO in 2000 and subsequently recorded by them. They gave an intense, energetic performance which was much appreciated by the almost capacity audience, evidently thrilled to find that the composer was present when he joined the orchestra for a bow.

The other works in the concert were both by Beethoven: in the first half his Piano Concerto no. 1 in C major with Steven Osborne as soloist and, in the second half, his Symphony no. 4 in B flat major. As usual the NCO played the whole concert without a conductor under the direction of their leader, Nicholas Ward. The string section of the orchestra comprised just twelve strings. This was clearly going to be a different Beethoven from the one we experience with the big symphony orchestras, and it turned out to be one that showed up the strengths (and only occasionally the limitations) of a chamber music approach.

The First Piano Concerto (which was written after the concerto known as no. 2) was a relatively early work. Beethoven was still in his twenties and making his mark as performer as well as a composer. The world of Mozart and Haydn is never far away, but sudden changes of mood and harmony foreshadow the later Beethoven. Osborne demonstrated a fine rapport with the orchestra, with some striking contrasts and a powerful account of the substantial first movement cadenza and some fine lyrical playing in the second, which contains some of Beethoven’s finest melodies. The exuberant rondo finale was a sheer joy. The small string body meant that none of the details of the solo writing were obscured. Osborne rewarded the audience’s enthusiastic response to the performance with one of Beethoven’s Bagatelles as an encore.

The Fourth Symphony is sometimes considered a slighter work than many of Beethoven’s others, in particular its neighbouring Third and Fifth, but the rhythmic drive of the NCO’s performance suggested the energy of the more celebrated Seventh. The remarkably sinister slow opening gives way to a lighter, athletic Allegro (bringing Haydn to mind) and this energy returns in the third and fourth movements. As in the concerto, the contributions of the woodwind were brought into focus and the key role of the timpani, often playing very quietly, was more prominent than in many performances.  It was in the first, third and fourth movements of the symphony that the strengths of the chamber music approach to the work came to the fore. There were some issues of intonation in the Adagio which might have been avoided with a larger number of strings but this was greatly outweighed by the delightful energy brought to bear especially in the first movement. In a small hall such as that of the Heritage Centre this small scale Beethoven worked well.