VIDEO PODCAST: Slava Ukraini! - recorded on 24 February 2022, the day the world woke up to the news that Vladimir Putin's Russian forces had invaded Ukraine. A fifty minute video which also features Caitríona O'Leary and Eric Fraad discussing their new film Island of Saints, and pays tribute to Joseph Horovitz, Malcolm Troup and Maria Nockin.
For their covid-delayed Royal Concert Hall debut – Nottingham, UK, 3 November 2021 – Aurora Orchestra and conductor Nicholas Collon were joined by writer and BBC Radio 3 presenter Tom Service for a concert that left what might have seemed a conventional choice of repertoire – Mendelssohn's E minor Violin Concerto and Beethoven's Seventh Symphony – refreshed and rejuvenated. It clearly had a similar effect on the audience, as well. The players stood throughout (except cellists and bassists, of course), which always gives the sound extra impact. And after the interval the orchestra gave one of its trademark from-memory performances, more of which later.
Soloist Nicola Benedetti's first entry in the Mendelssohn had a confiding intimacy just right for this, one of the least showy concertos in the repertoire. With spot-on intonation, this was the kind of virtuosity that didn't draw attention to itself, clearing the technical hurdles as though they simply weren't there. Orchestra and conductor were totally on the same wavelength, conspiring to make the approach to the cadenza a moment of quiet suspense. The second movement was sweetly expressive without becoming unctuous, with a quiet ending that held everyone's attention. The finale, with Mendelssohn at his most playful, received one of the fastest performances I've heard, but it didn't feel at all rushed; it just felt absolutely right. Everyone was on their toes, with the bubbly woodwind contributions a particular delight. But why no announcement of Benedetti's Instrumentalist award from the Royal Philharmonic Society just two days before?
Service and Collon gave a shared presentation of the Beethoven in what was obviously a well-honed double-act, passing the spotlight from one to the other with practised ease. They focused particularly on Beethoven's obsessive use of rhythm – cue some audience participation, as they encouraged us to drum out the patterns on our 'tympa-knees' (a pun for which they duly apologised). The players were slickly choreographed as they moved around the stage to highlight various details of Beethoven's scoring. The layering of the second movement string parts was particularly illuminating, as was one of Beethoven's Scottish folk song arrangements, sung and played by the orchestra to illustrate its background presence in the finale's opening.
The performance itself was a torrent of energy, right from its whip-crack first chord. A smaller orchestra does not have to mean a smaller sound, as players and conductor vividly demonstrated. The pay-off in terms of more focused detail did not in any way compromise the eruptive force of Beethoven's writing. Bright glints in the sound, eloquent brief silences, a slight but telling extra rhythmic emphasis here and there, the conversational exchange of phrases around the woodwind – all contributed to a reading of irresistible vitality. The second movement was a study in how to hold everyone's attention while barely audible. The string players' tonal control was a major factor in this, allowing us to savour the shifting tone-colours as they dovetailed into one another. The third movement was played flat-out – as in the Mendelssohn finale, not as an exercise in speed for its own sake but simply because the music demanded it. For sheer naked energy, the account of the finale was unsurpassed in my experience, capped by the horns ringing out at the top of their range.
Not only was the performance played from memory, the players' contributions to the presentation were, too. This orchestra has taken ensemble cohesion to an astonishing new level.
Copyright © 15 November 2021