Daring the Alp: Northern Sinfonia - City Hall, Newcastle

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The Independent Culture
The centre-piece of Northern Sinfonia's concert at Newcastle City Hall on Thursday was a recent work by John Casken called Darting the Skiff. Scored for strings only and playing for around 17 minutes, it was composed specially for the orchestra and its artistic director, Heinrich Schiff, who premiered it at this year's Cheltenham Festival. Casken insists that - despite the fact that the Italian word for skiff (the boat) is schifo, and that he began the piece while staying near Lake Como - no pun on the conductor's name was intended. The inspiration came from a line in Gerard Manley Hopkins's poem Penmaen Pool ('You'll dare the Alp / You'll dart the skiff') which seemed to the composer to encapsulate the surrounding scenery, the play of light and the movement of boats and water on the lake below. The work is continuous, though divided into two main sections, and comprises elements of toccata (homophonic), fantasia (imitative), canzona (restrained) and even jazz toccata (with a nod at Erroll Garner). The texture is constantly varied by differing fragmentation and subdivision of instrumental groups and by homogeneous blending or contrast of dissimilar figuration. It demands a staggering level of virtuosity, as is clear to both eye and ear. Northern Sinfonia's account was committed and convincing, strong and confident in the forceful passages, serene and reflective at moments of stillness.

In the opening Allegro of Beethoven's Eroica Symphony, Schiff wisely disregarded the Romantic equation of 'massive equals sluggish' and set a lively pace with robust strings and delicate exchanges between violins and woodwind. There was searing tragedy and a fair proportion of light and shade in the Funeral March, though the Scherzo was taken at a headlong speed distinctly unkind to the horns. In the finale, too, the brass was sometimes loud and obtrusive and not always quite in phase with the rest of the orchestra. A gentler tempo throughout would have been no bad thing.

The concert had begun with Mozart's early G minor Symphony (K183), a Sturm und Drang work strangely prophetic of the mature G minor Symphony (K550) of 15 years later. Mozart uses four horns here, for the first and only time in a symphony, and he writes in a minor key with considerable passion. The Sinfonia settled well into its interpretative demands, splendid in the over-the-handlebars ending of the first movement's coda, lyrical in the Andante, austere in the declamatory Menuetto, mercurial in the Finale, making the most of the changes of mood and emphasis and forging them into a cohesive whole.

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