Monday 10 February 2014

Aurora Orchestra serenades us at the Wigmore Hall

Serenade - Aurora Orchestra
Mahler, Shostakovich, Britten: Jane Irwin, Andrew Staples, Aurora Orchestra, Andrew Gourlay: The Wigmore Hall
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Feb 9 2014
Star rating: 4.0

A fascinating and satisfying programme, showcasing some virtuosic playing 

Last night's (9 February 2014) concert at the Wigmore Hall by the Aurora Orchestra was one of those which seemed fated. The centre piece of the concert was supposed to be a new work by Judith Weir to be sung by Alice Coote. This had to be postponed and was replaced by Mahler's Lieder einer fahrender Gesellen. Then Coote herself cancelled through illness, replaced by Jane Irwin. Also in the programme was Britten's Serenade for tenor horn and strings with tenor Allan Clayton; illness forced Clayton to cancel, as it did his replacement. So it was certainly smiles all round that Andrew Staples was able to step in at the last minute (Staples was a memorable Albert in the recent Albert Herring at the Barbican). The remainder of the programme was less fraught, Mozart's Eine kleine Nachtmusik and Dmitri Shostakovich's Chamber Symphony in C minor Op 110a (Rudolph Barshai's arrangement of Shostakovich's 8th string quartet). All conducted by Andrew Gourlay.

Gourlay and the Aurora Orchestra opened with Mozart's Serenade in G K 525, 'Eine kleine Nachtmusik', a work whose charms I have never been able to quite understand, feeling that Mozart has written other more interesting works in the genre. Gourlay and his 16 string players gave a vibrant, up-front performance with crisp, incisive moments and some delicate phrasing in the opening  Allegro. The orchestra made a full blooded sound, with some HIP stylistic details and certainly Gourlay seemed to be enjoying himself, swaying to the music. But the performance as a whole seemed perhaps a bit too incisive and a bit lacking in charm. The Romanze had more grace, though there were still robustly vibrant moments, whilst the Menuetto contrasted a rhythmically incisive first subject with a flowing counter-subject. The finale was impressively crisp, fast and precise.

Britten's Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings was premiered at the Wigmore Hall (with Peter Pears singing the solo tenor and Dennis Brain playing the horn part). Here Gourlay and the Aurora Orchestra were joined by Andrew Staples and Nicolas Fleury, principal horn with the Aurora Orchestra. Having heard Britten's Serenade played in larger halls, with bigger bodies of strings, it was lovely to hear it in the more intimate setting of the Wigmore Hall. Staples performance reflected this intimacy and the real transparency the small string group brought to the piece.

Fleury played the Prologue with strong yet subtle tones. He used a natural horn for this movement, a nice touch which might have been a nod towards Dennis Brain who, for much of his career, played an early 19th century French hand-horn modified with a valve block. In Pastoral, Staples gave us a fine legato line with very straight tone and expressive words. Perhaps here the strings were a little too present, but Staples was still able to give us some gorgeously floated top notes. In the third verse, Staples pointed the text well and was complemented by Fleury's fine horn playing. Nocturne started with some vivid string playing, Staples coming in with vibrant, bravura tones. The conclusion to the first verse started quietly evocative and ended being simply thrilling. Staples made the second verse intimate, floating the line effortlessly with a magical conclusion. The final Blow, bugle blow was brilliantly thrilling from all concerned, but always controlled and within the context of the music.

The strings were quietly intense and Fleury's horn playing was stunning for the introduction to Elegy. When Staples came in his singing of O Rose echoed the way Fleury had hand-stopped the same figure on his horn. Staples contined with a finely controlled and darkly concentrated performance. He opened Dirge alone, singing in the sort of quietly focussed and intense tones which make you tingle, yet giving full weight to both line and words. Whether singing loud or soft, there was a really vital feeling to his performance, complemented by great focus, rhythmic vitality and vivid tone from the strings. When Fleury's horn finally entered is was thrilling. The movement ended in quiet intensity.

In Hymn Fleury's perky horn playing was complemented by Staples' nimbleness. He displayed neat accuracy in the runs on the word goddess, giving it a sort of expressive neo-baroque feel. With the horn off stage, Staples and the orchestra brought great lyric beauty and melodic shape to Sonnet. Staples gave the vocal line a sort of hypnotic beauty, still with a robust core to his voice and lovely melismas on lulling charities. Finally we heard Fleury again, presumably on his natural horn, playing the Epilogue firm of tone but evocatively distant.

Arnold Schoenberg arranged Gustav Mahler's Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen for a chamber ensemble which included piano and harmonium. Iain Farrington's arrangement takes the ensemble closer to Mahler, as Farrington uses a string quintet, flute, clarinet, horn, harp and percussion. Mahler tinkered with the songs for some time, starting with piano versions and then orchestrating them. Farrington's arrangement has all the intimacy of the piano versions, but Farrington has re-created many of the instrumental colours of the orchestral score. The Aurora Orchestra played the whole piece with admirable transparency, clearly revelling in the lovely colours and textures.

Jane Irwin's performance started a bit too understated. She brought a lovely relaxed feeling to her tone in Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht but did not quite dominate the stage the way I felt she should. That said, her tone had a lovely autumnal melancholy to it, despite the song's perky middle section. Gin heut' Morgen uber's Feld brought a nice smile to Irwin's voice with an interesting depth of tone (there was perhaps something of Kathleen Ferrier in the dark expressiveness of her lower register and the quivering vibrancy of the upper). The accompaniment had a lovely ebb and flow, with rich textures and evocative Mahlerian colours.

In Ich hab' ein gluhen Messer  she combined impulsiveness and vibrancy and created a dramatic mini-drama. It was interesting hearing this in a more transparent, less well upholstered performance and the result was magical as things eased off in the second verse. Irwin's voice had a warm mellow tone to it which gave an autumnal quality to Die zwei blauen Augen, at one point there was the magical sound of just the harp and a couple of instruments supporting Irwin's voice.

This was an autumnally evocative performance of Mahler's song cycle. There is scope for Irwin's interpretation to deepen and darken, but she combined with the fine playing from the Aurora Orchestra in Farrington's orchestrations to give us something rather beautiful.

For the final work in the programme the string ensemble returned to the stage for Rudolph Barshai's arrangement of Shostakovich's String Quartet No. 8 Shostakovich wrote the quartet after a visit to Dresden, but it is shot through with his DSCH signature and he said in a letter that the quartet could be read as a memorial to him. Barshai's arrangement makes more explicit some of the more orchestral parts of the piece.

The first movement opened in dark intense fashion with very rich tones from the strings, leading to a violin solo (Thomas Gould) over held strings which created a very eerie atmosphere. Moments of cool austerity led to an aetherial first violin tune which was veiled and highly seductive. The second movement erupted with vivid intense violence, the playing was both shocking and wonderful in its attack. This was a truly virtuoso performance, with a middle section having strange gypsy hints as Shostakovich included references too the Jewish inflected music from his Second Piano Trio (one of a number of self quotations in the work).

The waltz which followed is typical Shostakovich, melodic and charming but a bit creepy and unsettling. It developed into some very odd metres along the way before reaching a lovely cello solo in the trio section (a reminiscence of the composer's recent cello concerto). The final moment opened with a strange effect, one heightened by Barshai's orchestration, with the leader Thomas Gould holding a quiet single note against fearsome chords from the ensemble, giving a strong feeling of the majority drowning the minority. A rather chilling moment. An austerely beautiful and consoling melody led to another lovely cello solo. There was the feeling of the movement winding down, the typical long slow Shostakovich finish. A repeat of the chilling opening material led to one of those wonderfully expressive Shostakovich passages of counterpoint, which the ensemble really made tell, bringing textural structure and expressive richness to a conclusion which gently unwound into nothing.

Despite the vicissitudes this was a fascinating and satisfying programme, showcasing some virtuosic playing from the members of the Aurora Orchestra directed by Andrew Gourlay.

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