The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra is back in action. After resolving a six-month lockout over a labor dispute, the SPCO resumed performances Thursday night at Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church in Apple Valley. They picked up the existing schedule, an eclectic program arranged by Artistic Partner Thomas Zehetmair.

From the opening work, the Overture to Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro,” SPCO’s sound (warm horns, dazzling strings, mellifluous winds) seemed very much intact.

The centerpiece of the program was Robert Schumann’s Cello Concerto, an unconventional work, more a Konzertstück (Concert Piece, as he originally called it), than a concerto in the traditional sense. For one thing, he weaved the three movements together into an uninterrupted whole.

Cellist Steven Isserlis played as if in a trance, throwing himself about, as if playing music with his whole body.

The range of the composition took the cello from growling bass notes to high notes above the treble staff. Isserlis fills the whole range with a smooth tone. The climax gave him the opportunity to play with a passionate virtuosity.

Zehetmair maintained a firm control of the orchestra, never obscuring the soloist. But his interpretation was overly cerebral, missing the spiritedness of the Romantic concerto.

Arnold Schoenberg’s Three Early Waltzes for String Orchestra are early works indeed, written when he was 23. They are rhythmically and harmonically quirky, but still firmly rooted in Romantic tonality. They were composed for an ensemble Schoenberg played in, though the first performance was not until 2003.

These are miniatures, written with youthful impetuosity. Zehetmair captured the tongue-in-cheek humor, while the musicians produced their most lush sound of the evening. This was the highlight of the program.

In a flurry of activity in the summer of 1788, Mozart completed his final three symphonies: the 39th in late June, the 40th a month later, and the 41st (“Jupiter”) just two weeks after that.

The Symphony No. 39 has never gained the prominence of the later two and this performance did nothing to raise the symphony’s reputation. The reading was leaden, overwhelming Mozart’s mercurial delicacy.

Even so, the audience granted three standing ovations. And even with a number of freelance musicians filling out the rolls, the orchestra demonstrated that it remains a first-class ensemble. 

William Randall Beard writes regularly about music.