As their contribution to The Sage Gateshead’s weekend-long “Fiddles on Fire” festival, Northern Sinfonia presented a selection of solo violin and string music that artfully blurred the distinctions between musical periods and genres, putting the emphasis firmly on the instrument itself, and on the spirited playing of their leader, Bradley Creswick.

Members of Northern Sinfonia © Mark Savage
Members of Northern Sinfonia
© Mark Savage

In an addition to the published programme, they began with Alfred Schnittke’s pastiche piece Moz-Art à la Haydn, which pokes fun at the great classical composers, in a warm, affection way. Northern Sinfonia followed Schnittke’s own performance directions, beginning and ending in darkness, and with the players moving around on stage. The beginning was particularly effective, with messy improvisations sounding decidedly spooky in the darkness, and the lights coming on as the players break out into variations on a Mozart violin theme.

The “Fiddles on Fire” festival mostly celebrates the violin’s role in folk music, so it was entirely appropriate that the programme included two pieces inspired by folk styles. Hejre Kati, written in 1890 by Hungarian composer Jenő Hubay, uses Hungarian czárdás dance themes, (one of which was also used by Brahms in his Hungarian Dances) and was played this evening in Bradley Creswick’s own arrangement for strings. There was some beautifully mellow playing in the slow opening section, before launching into much livelier material, played by Bradley Creswick with evident enjoyment and panache. Creswick then began the wistful solo violin opening of Ashokan Farewell by American Jay Ungar almost before the applause for the Hubay had finished, cleverly creating a sense of something very relaxed and improvisatory. Ungar wrote the piece after returning from a musical summer camp in the woods, to evoke his sense of loss at returning to the grim realities of modern life.

The piece generally known as “Albinoni’s Adagio” is not by Albinoni at all, but was written in the 1950s by music writer Remo Giazotti – possibly based on a fragment of manuscript by Albinoni, or possibly entirely Giazotti’s own composition. It’s one of those enormously popular pieces that one rarely listens to properly, but hearing it this evening in a particularly rich and romantic performance by Northern Sinfonia, I wondered how I could ever have believed it to be Baroque. It was more akin to the pavanes of Ravel or Fauré, or a Vaughan Williams fantasia.

Northern Sinfonia employed this big, rich string sound again for works by Handel and Vivaldi, to mixed effectiveness. In the Handel, the first of the Op. 6 Concerti Grossi, the details of the counterpoint that make the piece interesting were mostly lost, in favour of big dynamic contrasts and an emphasis on the melody. This was crowd-pleasing Handel, but whilst some Baroque works can take this approach, the Concerti Grossi require, in my opinion, more delicacy.

One Baroque work that is infinitely adaptable, and can easily take any style of playing, is Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, and Northern Sinfonia’s boldly colourful performance reminded me that there is a good reason why the Four Seasons is so popular. Every nuance of Vivaldi’s highly descriptive writing was brought to the fore – from the viola’s barking dog in the slow movement of Spring, through to the pouring rain of Winter. The fast movements, particularly the stormy allegros in Summer and Winter were wonderfully exciting, and the tension created by the repeated discordant notes at the beginning of Winter was exquisite. Bradley Creswick threw himself into the solo passages with gusto, moving around, reacting physically to the music, all of which added to our enjoyment of his performance. With some slightly unusual phrasing in the opening theme of the very first movement and some lovely ornamentation in the slow movements he also gave this well-known piece a fresh feel, that made it all the more enjoyable.