Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Aurora Orchestra/Collon @ Kings Place, London

20 September 2014

Kings Place (Photo: Nick White)

Gustav Mahler isn’t much associated with chamber music. So it was surprising to see the Aurora Orchestra tackling his fourth symphony with a reduced force of just 13 players.

The Symphony No. 4 (1899-1900) is smaller in scale than Mahler’s other symphonic works, but it still commands a heavy duty orchestra of full strings, woodwind and brass (though not trombone or tuba), plus harp and a battery of percussion. An arrangement of the score for chamber ensemble was made as early as 1921 when the Society for Private Musical Performances in Vienna, under the leadership of Schoenberg, Berg and Webern, asked Edwin Stein to prepare one. The reconstruction of Stein’s original arrangement used in this performance pares down the instrumentation and omits some of the lower percussion, wind and brass.

The performance of the symphony in this version was a revelation. Not only did the Aurora Orchestra and conductor Nicholas Collon present the work with great clarity, but they also gave listeners an insight into Mahler’s wider musical influences. Take the first movement, for example. In its slimmer form, the sonata-form ‘moderato’ takes on a rougher, rustic edge. The jangling sleigh bells and percussive ‘oom-pah-pah’ of the lower strings called to mind the local street and military bands which Mahler must have remembered from his Bohemian childhood. The second movement scherzo and trio were strongly reminiscent of Beethoven, with particularly polished playing by leader Alexandra Wood, who swapped seamlessly from one violin to another (the second pitched a tone higher than the first). The ensuing adagio was pure bliss, while the final sung movement focused listeners on the simplicity of both words and music – a setting of ‘The Heavenly Life’ from Mahler’s Das Knaben Wunderhorn. Soprano Kate Royal was good choice as soloist, her bright, firm tone giving depth and conviction to the simple yet affecting poem of a child’s view of heaven.

The concert opened with a chamber version of Webern’s Six Pieces for Large Orchestra (1913). This version was arranged by Webern himself and is scored for flute, oboe, clarinet, percussion, harmonium, piano and string quintet. Despite the loss of detailed orchestral colour, the work benefits in this arrangement from subtler nuances, with musical lines and chords divided across the instruments. The reduction in players did not lessen the power of the music either. Interesting, too, how the harmonium (played by Iain Farrington) provided a mystical quality to what was intended as a memorial to Webern’s mother.

Alban Berg’s Chamber Concerto (1925) needed no special arranging, as it was originally scored by Berg for piano, violin and 13 wind instruments. The work is as complex as one wants to make it – with musical codes and configurations referring to Berg and his circle – but it is at heart a double concerto for piano and violin cast in three Classical-era movements, with a backwards glance at late Romanticism. Violin soloist Anthony Marwood responded fully to the lyricism of Berg’s writing in the second movement, which contains hints of the emotional outpourings of the Violin Concerto, written a decade later. Alexander Melnikov, on the other hand, presented a more angular version of the piano part in the first movement. This led to slightly divergent approaches in the final movement, but Collon’s control and the excellent playing of the wind performers managed to hold it together.

Further details of Kings Place concerts can be found at kingsplace.co.uk

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