At the Proms the Aurora Orchestra’s ‘Eroica’ offers much more than a mere feat of memory

24/07/2017

Proms

2017 BBC PROMS 10 – R. Strauss, Beethoven: Tom Service, Nicholas Collon (presenters); Aurora Orchestra/Nicholas Collon (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, 22.7.2017. (CC)

Tom Service and Nicholas Collon introduce Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ Symphony, with live excerpts. Concept, script and direction by Nicholas Collon, Jane Mitchell and Tom Service; Struan Leslie (movement director)

Prom 10 - Tom Service and Nicholas Collon introduce Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, with live excerpts, Richard Strauss Metamorphosen & Beethoven Symphony No. 3 in E flat major, ‘Eroica’ at the Royal Albert Hall with the Aurora Orchestra conducted by Nicholas Collon on Saturday 22 July 2017. Photo by Sarah Jeynes/BBC

Nicholas Collon (conductor) and BBC Radio 3 Presenter Tom Service introduce Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’
with live excerpts from the Aurora Orchestra (c) Sarah Jeynes/BBC

R. StraussMetamorphosen (1945)

Beethoven – Symphony No. 3 in E flat, Op. 55, “Eroica”

This Prom offered a wonderful example of how skilled presentation can illuminate, or introduce, a masterwork. The familiar figure of Tom Service from the BBC found himself in a slick double-act with founder and principal conductor of the Aurora Orchestra, Nicholas Collon. Prior to a first-half performance of Metamorphosen, these two gentlemen introduced Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ – the “single most revolutionary piece of music ever composed” (Service) – to a packed Royal Albert Hall. Audience involvement was there from the start: the audience had to sing the bass theme heard at the outset of the finale. Very un-English, and surprisingly popular; we even got it right when they split the audience into two so we could do the off-beats. There was plenty of background, the Scherzo was remodelled as a Haydn minuet so we could see just how revolutionary Beethoven was being, and the ‘Funeral March’ was heard in counterpoint with Metamorphosen. Entertaining, especially with the orchestra continually moving about on stage so that the relevant instruments were in the right place to demonstrate; Struan Leslie’s choreography was impressive. All the excerpts were played from memory, which was even more impressive.

The Richard Strauss itself was given a swift account by the Aurora Orchestra (using music for this one; Collon conducted from memory), but a tender one. The opening glowed, as it should, and one could justifiably reframe that swift speed, in fairness, as flow. It was impossible to miss the links to the Funeral March of the ‘Eroica’, of course, after the “lecture”. Interestingly, Metamorphosen has been a rarity at the Proms: the last time it was heard was in 1999 (although in 2014 it was heard in a string septet version in a Proms Chamber Music event). Just occasionally one wished for a little more space, but the actual sound was gorgeous, the solo string lines beautifully placed and projected.

And so to the ‘Eroica’, and those feats of memory. We heard a terrific performance with a lean sound. Hard sticks were used by the timpanist; there were some nods to authenticity in the brass (second horn Angela Barnes – better known from the LSO –  used lip and hand to achieve an “enshrouded” feel to her sounding B natural neighbour note right at the end of the slow movement on her modern, valved instrument); valveless trumpets and antiphonal violins all conspired to give this account a sense of freshness. There was a sense of proper dialogue between wind and strings. In fact, the defining factor was discipline.

The clean double-basses at the opening of the ‘Funeral March’ spoke more of this discipline, yet the movement made its effect, as did the hunting trio of horns in the Trio of the third movement. Only the odd person in the audience seemed to sing along in the finale (getting more English, now). Collon shaped this last movement well, the end making its desired effect. Afterwards, I, for one, felt refreshed. This was an ‘Eroica’ like no other which got the enthusiastic Prommers’ reception it deserved.

Colin Clarke

For more about the 2017 BBC Proms click here.

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