In dedicating this performance to the victims of terrorism in a few words before the concerto, Gabriela Montero invited us to focus on the beauty that people can create in contrast to the suffering that they can cause. The Manchester Camerata, directed by violinist (and former leader of the orchestra) Giovanni Guzzo began the inventive programme with Arvo Pärt’s Fratres. Pärt is a composer with whom the Manchester Camerata has a special relationship: in July this year they played an all-Pärt concert (including Fratres) in the presence of the composer as part of the Manchester International Festival. The composer has presented Fratres in versions for different combinations of instruments; today we heard its 1991 incarnation for string orchestra and percussion. The wood block (claves) and bass drum together give a hint of a Japanese texture which complements the Renaissance church music suggested by the strings. They go together to create a dignified and beautiful piece which received an appropriately eloquent performance. This could be a work to join Barber’s Adagio and Elgar’s Nimrod for occasions requiring solemn and uplifting music.

Gabriela Montero © Shelley Mosman
Gabriela Montero
© Shelley Mosman
The 25 strings of the orchestra were joined by two horns, two oboes and Venezuelan pianist Gabriela Montero for Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 14 in E flat major. This is one of four concertos that Mozart is said to have written in an astonishing burst of activity in eight weeks in 1784 and is known to be one of which he thought highly. Montero gave a highly expressive performance of this intriguing work which surprises with unexpected turns and changes of mood. Her opportunities for display never became mere show but were integral to the atmosphere of the whole concerto. Above all, she and compatriot Guzzo demonstrated a constant rapport and together they created a thing of great beauty.

Montero is well known for performing improvisations: she explained that since she was a little girl she has improvised at the piano “to tell stories” and enjoys creating music that exists in the moment of its creation only. She invited suggestions from the audience for themes and we duly had substantial improvisations first on the Beatles’ Yesterday and then on La Marseillaise.

Astor Piazzolla’s Four Seasons of Buenos Aires has become a favourite of the Manchester Camerata and its audience. Some in the audience will remember a performance with Giovanni Guzzo in 2013 (alongside Vivaldi’s Four Seasons) and just a few weeks ago the Camerata played a version for strings with solo accordion. In fact the work began life as a single movement Summer to which other seasons were later added. They were originally performed by tango bands and they are all rooted in Piazzolla’s tango nuevo, a reworking of the traditional dance form more for listening to than dancing to. They took on a new lease of life when in 1996-1998 Russian composer Leonid Desyatnikov arranged them into a four movement concerto for violin and string orchestra, the form in which we heard it today. This version introduces a few explicit references to Vivaldi but includes some effects from the strings that Vivaldi could not have imagined. Guzzo took the solo violin part with verve and he and the orchestra looked as if they were thoroughly enjoying performing the piece. Mention should also be made of the significant solo cello part, played by Hannah Roberts. The reflective and gentle sections came across as strongly as the more exuberant ones; all in all it was a very fine performance.

The final work in the afternoon’s concert was Britten’s Variations on a Theme by Frank Bridge which is frequently performed by string orchestras but rarely with as much style as by the Manchester Camerata. It was written by a young Britten, still in his twenties and eager to show off his skill as a composer, and as a showcase for a new orchestra invited to perform at the Salzburg Festival in 1937. It ranges over many moods, from the parodistic swagger of the central movements (Aria italiana, Bourrée classique and Wiener Walzer) to the perhaps surprisingly serious conclusion. The Manchester Camerata brought out the diversity of this remarkable work.

Throughout the concert the orchestra and soloists brought their great technical skill and artistic imagination to bear on a selection of pieces which initially might appear not to belong together but they achieved a great success. This was a memorable concert by a first-rate chamber orchestra.