sat 16/12/2017

Labèques, Aurora Orchestra, Collon, Kings Place review - good-natured Schubert and Mozart delight | reviews, news & interviews

Labèques, Aurora Orchestra, Collon, Kings Place review - good-natured Schubert and Mozart delight

Labèques, Aurora Orchestra, Collon, Kings Place review - good-natured Schubert and Mozart delight

French pianists battle a noisy audience but the music wins out

French pianists, sisters Katia and Marielle Labèque© Umberto Nicoletti

The Aurora Orchestra at Kings Place last night showcased both the best and worst things about attending live concerts, with the pros outweighing the cons. Early on, extraneous noise made me long for the pure listening experience of a good pair of headphones, but elsewhere the immediacy and physicality of the live experience was genuinely exciting.

This latest edition of Aurora’s multi-season survey of Mozart piano concertos featured the Labèque sisters, Katia and Marielle, who have been taking duet and two-piano repertoire around the world for over 30 years, in the concerto for two pianos, K.365.

But they began alone on stage, playing Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite in its original piano duet version. This hushed, deceptively simple music was augmented by an array of coughing that might have graced a tuberculosis ward. And in case the performance hadn’t already been thoroughly ruined, a phone ring that went on uncurtailed for about 20 seconds just drove the point home. The playing was far from faultless, but if the noise distracted me it must certainly have distracted the performers. There were some striking pedalling effects and carefully voiced inner parts, but a thoughtful performance was wasted.

At this stage a long evening stretched ahead, but things got better and better as the show went on, the players warmed up, and the audience settled down. In a previous concert in this series I felt the programme, although enterprising, did not hang together entirely convincingly. Here, though, there was much more of a thread.British conductor Nicholas CollonThe sibling theme, personified in the Labèques, was reflected in the Ravel, written for a brother and sister to play (children of Ravel’s friends), as was Mozart’s two-piano concerto. In his case the other pianist was his sister Nannerl, a child prodigy like Wolfgang, but denied his career by the mores of the time. It is impossible to hear the concerto without feeling something of the Mozart sibling bond, as phrases are tossed from one piano to the other, the pianists finishing off each other’s ideas, dovetailing together instead of the conflict usually at the heart of a classical concerto.

The piano playing was again not without blemish, but there was so much to enjoy it didn’t matter. The Labèques’ tone was so well matched that in interlocking passagework they sounded like a single “super-pianist”, and there were wonderful feats of co-ordination, such as the end of the first movement cadenza. In the slow movement, oboist Thomas Barber shaped his long notes beautifully. The youthful joy in the music was palpable in the playing, and the moments of sternness felt only skin deep, geniality being the watchword.

It’s not an especially easy piece to love, but Aurora found grace as well as fizz

The sense of community amongst the orchestra was also great to see. Conductor Nicholas Collon (pictured above) steered the ship with a light touch, and the experience the orchestra have of playing symphonies from memory seems to have made its mark in terms of the amount of eye contact and physical communication between the players. The entire string section play with a smile on their faces, none more so than principal viola Sascha Bota, who is a joy to watch (and hear), living every moment, every switch of character, revelling in the middle part of the texture, and showing that, even for professionals, playing music can remain fun. In that vein, it was great to see the Labèques join the audience for the second half, even though their work was done.

Stravinsky’s Concerto in D is a mini-Brandenburg for strings alone, edgier and more astringent than the earlier Dumbarton Oaks concerto. It’s not an especially easy piece to love, but Aurora found grace as well as fizz, playing the piece like chamber music. I’d be interested to hear them play it without music, and possibly – no disrespect to Collon – without a conductor. The basses acquitted themselves well in an unforgiving part, and the ending is one of Stravinsky’s best. This performance was something of a revelation.

There was even better to come, and the programme’s thread was further drawn out. Schubert’s Fifth Symphony is very much a tribute to Mozart, a charming piece, charmingly played. Collon really enjoyed himself, capturing its amiable character in his gestures, warmly inviting players to join the conversation, but finding incisiveness when it was needed in the third movement. The orchestra were completely responsive, singing with one voice, and clearly enjoying their work.

After the Schubert Collon spoke to the audience – and could perhaps have done so earlier as he has a very natural way of speaking – describing Aurora’s large and expanding work with young people. But so as not to end with the sound of his voice soliciting donations, there was an orchestral arrangement of one of Schubert’s Moments Musicaux (No. 3) as a lovely afterthought.

@bernardlhughes

The Labèques’ tone was so well matched that in interlocking passagework they sounded like a single 'super-pianist'

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Editor Rating: 
4
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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