There was a sense of celebration in the air at the Sage Gateshead, as the Northern Sinfonia orchestra and chorus began their tenth season under the direction of Thomas Zehetmair with an all-Mozart programme. The hall was full, and before welcoming Zehetmair to the stage, Sage General Director Anthony Sargent had a bit of fun showing off Hall One’s fancy new multi-coloured lighting effects.

The three works performed in tonight’s concert were all written in the early 1780s, while Mozart was still in his twenties, and they all have happy associations in the composer’s life. The "Prague Symphony, No.38", was so-called because Mozart chose to premiere it to his loyal fans in the Bohemian capital after being snubbed by the fickle Viennese. The second horn concerto K417, was written for his close friend Joseph Leutgeb, and he wrote the Great Mass in C Minor K427 to celebrate his wife Constanze’s recovery from illness.

The concert opened with the Prague Symphony, which began hesitantly, the orchestra and conductor seeming a little unsettled through the opening chords, until the string players got hold of the melody and really let it sing out. The second movement was on the slow side, as too was the slow movement of the horn concerto that followed, but the energy picked up again in the final presto, whilst still allowing every little bit of woodwind detail to sparkle through.

Peter Francomb, principal horn with Northern Sinfonia gave a charmingly relaxed and understated performance of the K417 Horn Concerto; his casual appearance and lack of fireworks gave the impression that he was simply enjoying playing the piece for his friends. The french horn is an extremely difficult instrument to play, and listening to Peter Francomb running delicately up the ascending passages in the opening movement as if it were no trouble at all was a delight. The joyous rondo of the last movement has a catchy tune to rival the famous fourth concert, and was played with spirit by both soloist and orchestra, especially at the piece’s jokey ending.

Despite his solemn promise to God that if Constanze recovered from her illness he would write a Mass, Mozart never completed the C Minor Mass, but there is enough of it complete to justify its title “Great”. Parts of the chorus writing look back to the grandeur of the baroque era and the Handelian Qui Tollis movement of the Gloria was played with fitting panache, with heavy emphasis on the syncopations from the strings. The great fugue section that closes the Gloria was sung magnificently; the subject of the fugue was always allowed to come through the texture, and the faster passages were flawless. I am continuously in awe of Northern Sinfonia Chorus: they did not disappoint this evening, and it was very nice to see that their chorus master Alan Fearon was invited on stage to take applause, for deserved recognition of the work he does training the choir.

The choir were complemented by a young quartet of soloists, although the bulk of the work was done by sopranos Malin Christensson and Fflur Wyn and we only had brief teasing passages of tenor and bass. The gently lyrical Et Incarnatus that closes the unfinished Credo showed off the power and control of Christensson’s voice, particularly in the long sustained passages, as did the surprisingly low notes of the Christe Eleison. Fflur Wyn’s lighter voice was dazzlingly clear as she skated through the florid passages of the Laudamus te and was perfectly suited for the brilliance of Mozart’s solo vocal writing.

In his opening comments, Anthony Sargent had described this concert as “quintessential Zehetmair” but it was also quintessential Northern Sinfonia; graceful strings, virtuosic woodwind, wonderful singing and above all a real sense that music should give pleasure to performers and listeners alike.

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