wed 17/07/2019

Prom 22: Piemontesi, Aurora Orchestra, Collon | reviews, news & interviews

Prom 22: Piemontesi, Aurora Orchestra, Collon

Prom 22: Piemontesi, Aurora Orchestra, Collon

New ideas and new music from one of the UK's most exciting chamber orchestras

Memory plays no tricks on the Aurora Orchestra in Beethoven's "Pastoral" Symphony© Chris Christodoulou/BBC

What would you expect of an ensemble performance played from memory? That the odd lapse, entirely understandable over the span of a 40-minute symphony, would be more than offset, perhaps, by gains in intimacy and flexibility as the players could look around and phrase together, respond to a conductor’s nudge and turn on a sixpence.

In the event, the Aurora Orchestra’s performance of Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony didn’t turn out like that. It was fast, loud, not quite together and not very well in tune. The tempi weren’t problematic in themselves, close to the composer’s metronome marks and hardly quicker than David ZInman’s Prom last year with the Tonhalle Orchestra, a performance remarkable for fleet-footed grace, and lightness of touch which was missing here. The effort of memory recall may not have precluded subtlety so much as the physical geography of a stage without chairs (except for the cellos).

An increasing number of orchestras like and follow this practice, which follows certain 18th-century historical precedents, and audiences find the impact fresh and immediate. When they stand, musicians tend to play out, and the members of the Aurora offered little dynamic variety beyond loud, (not often) quiet, and just occasionally, very quiet, in the still of the second movement’s "Scene by the Brook", which was all too much like Sunday in the Park, with its mobile ringtones, crying baby and sundry noises off. All that it lacked was George to pack away his easel and open The Observer.

Piemontesi in Aurora PromMore puzzling were the small but persistent slips in ensemble and tuning. However enthusiastic the response and novel the presentation, such pieces, so familiar to us, live and die by accuracy. As leader, Tom Gould cajoled his charges, a more assertive stage presence than Collon on the podium, and all around him were attentive, in the moment, at ease and apparently relishing temporary liberation from the tyranny of the score. But it was a performance better witnessed than heard, at least until the finale, when Collon remembered he had a second-violin section to his right, ready and waiting to spar with the firsts, the woodwind offered more than cameos and the whole aspired towards the mood of visionary intensity which makes it one of Beethoven’s most religious works.

Seated with scores before them, the Aurora offered no less spirited but more disciplined support to the Swiss pianist Francesco Piemontesi (pictured above) in Mozart’s “Coronation” Concerto K.537. In this least-heard and most editorially sketchy of the mature piano concertos Piemontesi was urbane but never dull, imaginative but never eccentric (generously sharing the first movement’s cadenza with Collon on music-box), and ready to exploit the outer movements’ passages of tonal instability: the first-movement’s development abruptly wanders into a chromatic sequence more at home in the Second Viennese School than the first, and the finale features a key-change which Piemontesi staged like a tour round a suburban semi, opening the door on a bedroom got up in lime green.

Either side of the Mozart were placed contemporary works. Brett Dean’s own Pastoral Symphony has a vision of incipient ecological catastrophe in which Beethoven’s cuckoo and nightingale have ceased to sing, their charms soured and finally silenced by an electroacoustic part that could profitably have been assigned to the instruments. The story behind Anna Meredith’s five-minute Smatter Hauler is of Victorian pocket-pickers, but the instrumental conceit is no less uncommon, dividing the orchestra into eight sections (each led by a percussionist, like Boulez’s Rituel, though any resemblance ends there) and allotting to each a funky ostinato figure. Each group takes its turn in the spotlight before combining in riotous abandon: as “clear, brash and brutal” as Meredith had promised.

Read theartsdesk's reviews of other concerts from the BBC Proms

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