Each month the Northern Chamber Orchestra welcomes a loyal and regular audience at a series of concerts in Macclesfield. Many concerts sell out. At this evening’s concert I could see only a handful of empty seats. The concerts take place in the Heritage Centre which originally was opened in 1814 as the grand new premises for the Old Sunday School for children who worked all week in the mills and factories. In recent seasons the orchestra has been exploring some of the lesser known symphonies by Haydn (and are due to perform another in March next year). This evening’s concert began with his Symphony no. 21 in A major which dates from 1764 in the early years of the composer’s employment with the Esterházy family and at a time when he was experimenting with the form of the symphony.

Ben Hudson © Richard Jon
Ben Hudson
© Richard Jon
This symphony suited the forces of the NCO perfectly. As usual they played without a conductor; Nicholas Ward (the orchestra’s artistic director) directed from the leader’s chair. With 12 strings, two horns and two oboes this was fine chamber orchestra playing. The symphony began with a calm, slow opening movement, unusual to us but in the tradition of the Church Sonata with which the first audiences would have been familiar. Then came an exhilarating Presto which the NCO played with gusto. The third movement was a lilting minuet and the whole symphony was rounded off with a rousing finale. The players seemed to be enjoying the music and gave a spirited performance. Perhaps Symphony no. 21 would be better known if it had a catchy nickname like its successor, The Philosopher. 

For the second work of the evening the orchestra was joined by Ben Hudson for Mozart’s Bassoon Concerto in B flat major.  If the orchestra did not achieve the intensity or unity that they had shown in the Haydn this was the soloist’s time to shine. Hudson dazzled us with virtuoso displays in the first and third movements and a serene melody expressively played in the second. Particularly striking in the first movement were the contrasts between the high and low registers of the bassoon. It is amazing to think that Mozart was only 18 when he wrote this accomplished work which has become by far the best known work for bassoon as soloist. It is even more intriguing to learn that Mozart is thought to have written two further bassoon concertos which have not survived, a great loss to bassoonists and audiences alike.

In contrast with the two Classical works in the first half of the concert we continued after the interval with two Romantic works for strings alone. The first was Tchaikovsky’s Mélodie for violin and string orchestra, with Nicholas Ward as soloist. This sweet and charming miniature was originally for violin and piano, one of three pieces entitled Souvenir d’un lieu cher and a gift for the composer’s benefactress Nadezhda von Meck. It was later arranged for solo violin and orchestra by Glazunov. 

The more substantial work of the second half was Dvořák’s Serenade for strings. This is a relatively early work; Dvořák was not yet the internationally recognised composer he was to become. It is an unassuming, sunny piece much lighter in tone than his symphonies; in its five movements the Serenade depicts a range of moods and is full of delightful melodies redolent of the Czech countryside and sometimes reminiscent of the Slavonic Dances. It is said to have been written in just 12 days in May 1875. 

Unfortunately the Dvořák was the least successful piece in the concert. There were some issues with intonation and ensemble on occasion and I longed for a larger body of strings giving a warmer, richer sound. Perhaps a conductor would have given greater control. The concert was, however, memorable for a selection of uplifting pieces and in particular for the unfamiliar Haydn symphony.