At first glance, Beethoven isn’t an obvious composer to match up with Ravel and Stravinsky, but Northern Sinfonia’s concert this evening with guest conductor Thierry Fischer did draw out a few surprising parallels. The most notable of these was the spirit of joyfulness and excitement that the orchestra brought out from all three pieces: whether it was the jazz-inspired rhythms of the twentieth century works, the busy energy of the Beethoven, or the attention-grabbing moments in which all three composers delighted.

Thierry Fischer, © Chris Stock
Thierry Fischer,
© Chris Stock

As an hors d’oeuvre, we were treated to Stravinsky’s marvellous suite from The Soldier’s Tale. It is scored for just seven instruments, but the unusual mixture of violin, double bass, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone and percussion means that Stravinsky was able to deploy in miniature his mastery of orchestral colouring, and at times it was hard to believe that we didn’t have a full orchestra on the stage.

The suite comes from music written for a small-scale theatrical production, based on a Russian folk tale. A soldier who owns a magic violin is persuaded by the Devil to exchange his violin for unbounded knowledge and riches. The soldier, inevitably, finds that his new wealth becomes a burden, as he succumbs to drink, gambling and a failed love affair, and finally he ends up being marched off to hell by the triumphant Devil.

As might be expected from the story, the violin takes the starring role, but Stravinsky’s writing stretches all the instruments to the limits of their range and demands considerable technical skill from the players. Douglas Mitchell’s intricate clarinet flourishes gave sparkling colour to the relentless drive of Bradley Creswick’s violin, and all seven players gave the piece the panache that Stravinsky requires. The sensuous tango movement was particularly enjoyable, and the precision of the fragmented chorale gave a brief moment of gravitas before the finale. The piece ends abruptly with a long and elaborate drum solo, as the Devil has the final word.

The ragtime movement of The Soldier’s Tale was one of Stravinsky’s first attempts at writing music influenced by jazz, and the jazz theme continued with Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G. The piece opens with a whipcrack, but the orchestra were a little hesitant in their response, until the trumpet entry pulled it together. Gershwin’s influence is strongly felt in this first movement, which at times feels as if it’s quoting directly from Rhapsody in Blue. The trumpets shone throughout, with their crisp, bright tone contrasting the more lyrical piano and harp passages.

Pianist Imogen Cooper brought out the serious side of the piece, never getting carried away by the jazz, although there were times when it felt as if her playing was just a little too strict, and the first two movements could have benefited from a more relaxed approach. I enjoyed the opening solo of the second movement, and the delicacy of the repeated piano motif that tripped around high above the warmth of the strings. The virtuosic demands of the third movement were more suited to Imogen’s Cooper’s style, and the furious opening section was definitely one of those attention-grabbing moments.

Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony is often overlooked, overshadowed by the grandeur of the third and fifth, but it is an enjoyable piece, full of orchestral colour and contrast. The opening bars were poised, with the sense of restrained power that was suddenly unleashed on us a few moments later. At the end of this movement too, Northern Sinfonia demonstrated their great dynamic control, growing from a really exciting pianissimo. The third and fourth movements were full of life, and were unmistakably Beethovenian. However, despite the connections I was able to draw between the Beethoven and the first half, it didn’t really fit with the sparkle of the Stravinsky or Ravel, and left me feeling as if I’d had an overindulgent pudding; I could have done without it, but all the same, it was very enjoyable.