Saturday, 14 September 2013

Aurora Orchestra open the Kings Place Festival

John Reid, Thomas Gould, Timothy Orpen and Nicolas Fleury
John Reid, Thomas Gould, Timothy Orpen and Nicolas Fleury
The sixth Kings Place Festival is taking place at the moment, from 13 to 15 September, with a wide array of events many of which are free. The Aurora Orchestra opened proceedings on 13 September with Contrasts, a concert showcasing the ensemble's individual players in chamber music by Berg, Bartok and Brahms. We heard pianist John Reid and clarinettist Timothy Orpen in Berg's Four Pieces (Vier Stücke) Op. 5, violinist Thomas Gould joined Reid and Orpen for Bartok's Contrasts and then Reid and Gould were joined by horn player Nicolas Fleury for Brahms Horn Trio.

Berg's Four Pieces for clarinet and piano were composed in 1913, and come between the Altenberg Lieder and the Three Pieces for Orchestra Op 6 in his output. Each movement is compressed with gestures being pared down and textures spare, but there was something numinous about the textures that  Reid and Orpen brought to the work. The opening movement, Mäßig, was evanescent and evocative, but with something of a firm edge to it as well. Orpen's tone was nicely liquid with Reid having a very light touch on the piano. Quite magical. The second movement, Sehr langsam, was slower with something of a chorale about the repeated chords in the piano, Orpen's clarinet floating above in a rather intense fashion. The third movement, Sehr rasch, was not too fast but wispy fragments of melody swirled about. In the final movement, Langsam, Reid started from almost nothing with dark chords on the piano and a wonderful thread of sound from Orpen. There were moments of drama but the end evaporated magically. All in all a mesmerising and powerful performance.

Bartok's Contrasts for clarinet, violin and piano was written in 1938, as a result of an invitation from the violinist Joseph Szigeti though the piece was officially commissioned by the clarinettist Benny Goodman. The work was premiered by Szigeti, Goodman and Endre Petri, though Bartok subsequently revised the work adding a middle movement and changing the title from Rhapsody to Contrasts. The work is based on Hungarian and Roumanian folk melodies, the three movements are Verbunkos (Recruiting Dance), Pihenő (Relaxation) and Sebes (Fast Dance).

Opening with the clarinet accompanied by violin pizzicato and sharp chords on the piano, the piece takes a very fluid approach to texture and to styles. The melodies are clearly Hungarian folk inspired, but Bartok references them in tangential manner, as a fundament on which to build. The combination of forces meant that other influences seem to be present as well, that of klezmer and of jazz. In the first movement there was a great sense of dialogue between Gould and Orpen. You felt that though the piano was more than an accompanist, Bartok did not allow it to be quite the equal of the other two, but Reid played very sensitively. This movement had a solo cadenza for the clarinet, brilliantly played by Orpen.

For the second movement, we had lovely long intertwining lines from the clarinet and violin, with strange rumblings from Reid on the piano. The players gave the movement an eerie, mysterious texture. Bartok's writing for the violin and for the clarinet is challenging, at one point Gould was called upon to play double stopping and do left hand pizzicato at the same time. Needless to say the players seemed to take all of Bartok's demands in their stride.

Finally a fast and furious movement, with the violin re-tuning (in fact Gould used a different fiddle) lowering the pitch of the E string and raising the pitch of the G string by a semi-tone, thus giving  the music's tuning a strange effect. With its lively speed and brilliant rhythmic impetus from the players, this movement was the one which seemed closest to klezmer. Bartok allows things to relax in the middle section, but his use of bitonal (major and minor) harmonies adds a bitter-sweet feel. The return of the opening material included a terrific violin cadenza. The players were playful, but intense and brought out the rather sardonic wit in the movement.

Brahms's Horn Trio Op. 40 was composed in 1865 and was written in memory of his mother (though the piece uses material which Brahms had written some time previously). It was written for a natural horn, but we heard it played on a modern valve horn by Nicolas Fleury, with Gould and Reid.

The opening Andante eschews sonata form, and instead presents us with a sequence of consoling melodies. These were finely realised by Gould and Fleury who, for much of the movement, traded melodies antiphonally in a fine manner. The performance was very lyrical and quite fleet, with a lovely shape to the phrases. The textures of the material, with the combination of piano, violin and horn, were fascinating but Brahms never allows the piano to dominate. Neither is it a mini concerto for the horn. Instead the instruments are balanced, with Gould and Fleury displaying very sympathetic interaction. Gould's tone was quite slim, even though he was using vibrato and Fleury's horn tone was lovely and mellow, with quite a narrow sound. The result gave the music and nice fluidity and fleetness.

The Scherzo was dazzling, full of dash with a nice swagger to it and a lovely mellow middle section. The third movement, marked Adagio mesto, started with a mysterious piano part with the violin and clarinet adding a consoling but rather wandering melody which never seemed to settle. The players brought out the music's delicate subtlety and I thought it rather intermezzo-like, evoking for me moonlight on the water. The final movement, Allegro con brio, was a lively toe-tapping piece taking at quite a lick and it was clear that the players were really enjoying themselves.

A fascinating concert, displaying some fine playing and superb chamber ensemble from the players. A great start to the festival.

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