Sunday 8 January 2017

A feast of cello playing: Alban Gerhardt & the Aurora Orchestra at Kings Place

Alban Gerhardt, Nicholas Collon & Aurora Orchestra at Kings Place - photo Nick Rutter
Alban Gerhardt, Nicholas Collon & Aurora Orchestra in rehearsal at Kings Place - photo Nick Rutter
Britten, Vivaldi, Ravel, Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Kodaly; Alban Gerhardt, the Aurora Orchestra, Nicholas Collon; Kings Place
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jan 7 2017
Star rating: 4.5

An amazing evening of vibrant cello playing to launch Kings Place's cello season

Alban Gerhardt, Nicholas Collon & Aurora Orchestra at Kings Place - photo Nick Rutter
Alban Gerhardt, Nicholas Collon & Aurora Orchestra at Kings Place
photo Nick Rutter
During 2017, Kings Place is presenting Cello Unwrapped, a year long season exploring all aspects of music for the cello. The season launched on Saturday 7 January 2017 with a pair of concerts featuring cellist Alban Gerhardt. For the first he was joined by Nicholas Collon and the Aurora Orchestra for a programme which included a movement from Britten's Cello Suite No. 1, Vivaldi's Cello Concerto in B minor, RV 424, Ravel's Le tombeau de Couperin, Tchaikovsky's Variations on a Rocco Theme, Op.33 and Stravinsky's Pulcinella Suite. Then at a late-night concert Gerhardt played Kodaly's Sonata for solo cello, Op. 8. Quite a meaty programme, and one which Gerhardt played from memory throughout, and we were treated to an encore at each concert.

The concert with the Aurora Orchestra, entitled Reflections, explored how different composers had refracted the past into the present. Gerhardt opened with 'Canto primo' from Britten's Cello Suite No. 1, a work inspired directly by Bach's cello suites. Gerhardt plunged straight in, playing with singing tone and bringing out the Bachian elements. The music carried on into the Vivaldi concerto, which was performed without a conductor. The Aurora Orchestra used a reduced line-up, just thirteen strings and the fact that continuo was provided by theorbo and cello rather than harpsichord, meant that where the solo is accompanied there was very much a sense of dialogue between Gerhardt and the orchestra's principal cello (Sebastian van Kuijk).

The concerto is one of 27 which Vivaldi wrote, mainly in the 1720s, for the young women of the Ospedale dalla Pieta; clearly he had some gifted cellists in the orchestra. The Aurora Orchestra brought a lightness of touch and nice bounce to the music, without sounding confined or constrained; this was baroque music on modern instruments at its best. Gerhardt too combined litheness and bouncing rhythms with vibrancy in the solo part, and the whole created a really engaging performance. Gerhardt managed to invest the music with the right degree of intensity without bending the style over much. The Largo central movement had the solo accompanied just by continuo, with Gerhardt providing a soulful, sung line. The Allegro finale was vibrant and full of vigour, yet not unstylish, with orchestra and soloist matching each other in the vibrancy of the performance. Throughout the performance there was a strong sense of identification with the work from all the performers, a lovely degree of engagement and enjoyment, and as Gerhardt is a very physical performer this showed in his body language too.

For the final work in the first half, Nicholas Collon and the remainder of the orchestra came on to the platform to perform Ravel's Le tombeau de Couperin, his orchestral version of the piano work which celebrates both French baroque music and the friends who had fallen in the First World War. (In fact, whoever compiled the programme notes, had managed to list all six movements of the piano version rather than just the four which Ravel orchestrate) Playing the work with a chamber orchestra re-focuses the balance and brings a nice clarity to the textures, with the players of the Aurora Orchestra giving us a lightness of line and sense of detail. But this wasn't an under-powered performance, there were strong moments in the Prelude and wit too. The Forlane had a nice lilt to it with strongly pointed accents. The Menuet was elegant with a lovely oboe solo, but Collon drew some really passionate playing from the players too. Finally a vibrant, and stylish Rigaudon, making a brilliant and infectious conclusion.

After the interval Gerhardt returned to perform Tchaikovsky's Variations on a Rococo Theme, his homage to the music of Mozart. The piece was given in the standard version edited by Wilhelm Fitzenhagen, the cellist for whom it was written. There was a real sense of character to the performance, with Gerhardt playing with appealing grace and singing tone. There were moments of vivid vigour, but transparent textures too and nice sense of dialogue between Gerhardt and the orchestra. He played the more bravura elements (largely written by Fitzenhagen) brilliantly, integrating them into the light texture of the piece. Then during the cadenza the bottom string on Gerhardt's cello broke, Barely pausing, Gerhardt took up the instrument of the principal cellist to complete the work playing with rich tone and concluding at amazing speed. This was gripping, real on the edge of seat stuff, a brilliant ending.

For an encore, Gerhardt returned to his own cello (with three strings) as he and the orchestra played Resignation by Wilhelm Fitzenhagen, a soulful work written for solo cello, lower strings and wind.

Finally Nicholas Collon and the orchestra played Stravinsky's 1949 version of his Pulcinella Suite, the orchestral work made from his 1920 sung ballet. The players started with a nice swagger, and some really perky rhythms and throughout the work there was a crisp, clarity to the detail. There was some lovely singing oboe playing in Serenata, whilst the Tarantella had a nice elegance to it.The Toccata was brilliantly non-stop in its energy. The double basses were nicely characterful in their solo moment in the Vivo whist the Finale had a bright bright end, crisp neo-classical and vibrant.

This was a substantial programme and the scheduling at Kings Place was a little ambitious. That the first concert did not finish until 9.35 meant that the second one did not start on time at 9.45, but was delayed by 15 minutes. You felt that the schedule could have done with a little more space built into it.

Gerhardt played the Kodaly from memory in a darkened hall, creating a striking visual and aural image. He played tirelessly, as if he was completely fresh and at the end joked about playing the Bach suites as an encore, and you felt that he could. The opening Allegro maestoso ma appassionato started as a passionate peroration, with Gerhardt's playing very intent yet full of movement. Though the music was vibrantly rhapsodic, you sensed that Hungarian folk idioms were never far away. The Adaio con grand'espressione was quiet and haunting, played with singing tone, yet as the movement developed Gerhardt again brought out the rapturous nature of the music with passionate commitment. The final Allegro molto vivace had the feeling of a very energetic moto perpetuo. Yet Kodaly's treatment is very free, and Gerhardt drew the ending into an incredible combination of virtuosity and intensity.

We did get an encore, not the Bach cello suites, but something I did not recognise which understand was Moderato by Rostropovich. A fine end to an amazing evening of cello playing.

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