United Kingdom Mozart, Britten, Mahler and Shostakovich: Jane Irwin (mezzo-soprano), Andrew Staples (tenor), Nicolas Fleury (horn), Aurora Orchestra, Andrew Gourlay (conductor), Wigmore Hall, London, 9.2.2014 (CS)
Mozart: Serenade in G K.525 Eine kleine Nachtmusik
Britten: Serenade for tenor, horn and strings Op.31
Mahler: Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (arr. Farrington)
Shostakovich: Chamber Symphony in C minor Op.110a (arr. Barshai)
As the Aurora Orchestra prepared for last night’s Wigmore Hall concert, they must have wondered what they had done to deserve such rotten luck. To paraphrase Wilde, if to lose one soloist may be regarded as a misfortune, and to lose two looks like carelessness, when three singers withdraw it must seem as if the Fates are furious – especially when such tribulations are crowned by the postponement of a planned premiere of a new commission.
Fortunately, mezzo-soprano Jane Irwin and tenor Andrew Staples were able, at short notice, to step into the shoes of the indisposed Alice Coote, Allan Clayton and Robert Murray; and a programme alteration allowed horn player Nicolas Fleury and conductor Andrew Gourlay to join their fellow musicians on the platform, in a performance in which lightness and vivacity were complemented by probing intensity.
The first half comprised two contrasting Serenades: Mozart’s cheery ‘outdoor entertainment’ Eine kleine Nachtmusik and Britten’s more shadowy Serenade for tenor, horn and strings. The string players, all standing, gave a full-bodied, detailed rendition of Mozart’s well-known work, guided unassumingly by Gourlay, who communicated discreetly and economically. It was clear, however, that the ground-work had been done: the full, bright sound of the vigorous passages was balanced by moments of delicacy and grace, and judicious care was taken with details of accentuation, articulation and phrasing. Throughout, the uniformity of the ensemble was impressive.
The Romanze was sweet-toned but fairly swift, the momentum never lagging; while some tenderness was perhaps sacrificed, the tension forged in the minor key sections was enhanced by the counterpoint between the voices, the dialogue more vigorous than in more intimate readings.
The Menuetto was elegantly shaped, the Trio played by the section leaders alone, creating a pleasing contrast to the more robust tutti. The fleetness and delicate pianissimo of the concluding Rondo did not affect the precision of the playing, and the movement danced lightly and precipitously to the close.
A more sombre shadow settled upon the Hall during Britten’s nocturnal wanderings through the diverse English poetry that forms his Serenade for tenor, horn and strings. Nicolas Fleury tackled the challenges of the Prologue’s fanfares with confident aplomb, his tone mellow and full, the natural harmonics firm but expressive. In the Pastoral I felt that Fleury might have been more sympathetic to Andrew Staples, who floated the first line of Charles Cotton’s verse – ‘The day’s grown old’ – with a beautiful air of resignation. Staples’ seamless legato was comforting and lulling, and more fully revealed in the subsequent verses as Gourlay quelled the ensemble allowing the tenor’s gorgeous tone to glide through the texture; the strings’ pizzicati were warm and rounded.
The Nocturne enabled Staples to demonstrate the dark power of his lower register. The majesty of his projection, in the varied refrain ‘Blow, bugle, blow’ was complemented by Fleury’s ever-expanding arpeggiations. The tenor skilfully controlled the phrasing, the lines blossoming then receding, fading at the close of the song with easeful acquiescence. After the poignant calm, a sinister storminess: Fleury’s bitter appoggiaturas created a dangerous, suppressed tension in ‘Elegy’ (William Blake, ‘O Rose, thou art sick’), a sigh of pained anguish. The horn’s long, penetrating solos wonderfully framed Staples’ declamatory lines. Indeed, after the sustained horn motifs which close the ‘Elegy’, the unaccompanied voice which commences the ‘Dirge’ was disconcerting, the fifteenth-century text disturbing in tone and imagery. The tenor’s diction was superb, and the vocal line was supported by ominous brooding celli. Staples and Gourlay built progressively through the verses to a chilling climax, the dry articulation of celli and bass enhancing the menacing mood.
Fleury set off on the hunt at a furious pace in ‘Hymn’ (Ben Johnson, ‘Queen and huntress’), with Staples’ supple, flowing phrases following swiftly behind, the joyful brightness enriched by energized pizzicati. In the penultimate ‘Sonnet’ (Keats), Staples’ translucent pianissimo established a rapt stillness which contrasted expressively with the passionate voice of the lower strings. In the Epilogue the horn’s mysterious, ethereal off-stage calls seductively drew us into the world of dreams.
After the interval, Jane Irwin gave an eloquent performance of Mahler’s song-cycle Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen (Songs of a Wayfarer), here presented in a newly-commissioned arrangement by Iain Farrington. The opening song, ‘Wenn mein Schatz Hochzeit macht’ (‘When my love has her wedding-day’), tells of the Wayfarer’s grief at losing his beloved to another. The fast tempo and the clarity and focus of the instrumentalists’ motivic dialogue underscored the bitter-sweetness of the poetry. Irwin’s rich, resonant lower register conveyed both the wanderer’s passionate wonder at nature’s beauty and the grief which troubles his dreams; particularly affectingly was the mezzo-soprano’s sensitive engagement with the lower strings at the close: ‘I think of my sorrow!’
The bright ringing of Sally Pryce’s harp and the mellifluous instrumental textures brought renewed joy in ‘Ging heut Morgen übers Feld’ (‘I went this morning over the field’), but this simple happiness proved transient, brutally swept aside by the thunderous drum which announces the opening of ‘Ich hab’ein glühend Messer’ (‘I have a gleaming knife’) – the vicious percussive stabbing indicating the self-destructive nature of the Wayfarer’s obsession. Irwin sang with rhetorical power and assertiveness, as Gourlay drove the song to its agonized conclusion. ‘Die zwei blauen Augen’ (‘The two blue eyes’) was subdued but eloquent, as Irwin’s clean, well-crafted lines allowed the music to speak for itself.
The Aurora Orchestra concluded with Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony – an arrangement by Rudolf Barshai of one of the composer’s greatest masterpieces, his String Quartet No.8. The full complement of string players gave a stirring performance of this impassioned work, by turns reticently melancholy and savagely unrestrained. Gourlay meticulously and thoughtfully unfolded the narrative embedded in the score, and the players drew forth both the beauty and the pain of the composer’s lament.
Establishing an elegiac ambience during the statements of the D-S-C-H signature motif at the start of the Largo, Gourlay crafted the fugato conversations of the opening movement into a coherent whole. In the Allegro molto, the brutality of the violent, explosive chords which interrupted the fragile calm was shocking, the strings’ pounding an alarming blend of abandonment and control. Louisa Tuck’s cello solo in the central section of the Allegretto was a beautiful, ephemeral window into another world amid a mocking Totentanz. At the close of this sardonic dance, and throughout the complex collage of the following Largo, the G-string melodies of the first violins’ (led with great composure by Thomas Gould) were powerfully resonant.
Following the structural complexities of the penultimate movement, Gourlay gradually released the tension; the register fell and the tempo ebbed. Gould’s solo lines possessed a simple eloquence; at the last, all that remained were stillness and sorrow.