The ‘Pastoral’ Symphony: A Feat of Memory at the Proms

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United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Prom 22. Dean, Mozart Meredith, Beethoven. Franceso Piemontesi (piano), Aurora Orchestra, Nicholas Collon (conductor), BBC Proms Youth Ensemble, Royal Albert Hall, London. 2.8.2015 (LB)

Brett Dean (b. 1961) – Pastoral Symphony (2000)
Mozart  – Piano Concerto No.26 in D major, K.537 ‘Coronation’ (1788)
Anna Meredith (b.1978) – Smatter Hauler (2015) BBC Commission; world premiere

Beethoven – Symphony No.6 in F major, Op.68 ‘Pastoral’ (1808)

The Australian composer Brett Dean, previously a violist in the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, has received generous exposure for his compositions in the United Kingdom and it was his Pastoral Symphony that opened the Aurora Orchestra’s performance at the Albert Hall this afternoon.

It is a single movement work of about sixteen minutes’ duration and more akin to a tone poem than a symphony. Dean acknowledges Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ Symphony as its inspiration, in respect of his use of birdsong at least, but it is his commentary on the degradation of our natural environment, and the discord in human society, that lies at the heart of his own composition. His thoughtful dissonances exemplify the apparent readiness to place profit before the preservation of the natural environment, and he seeks also to give us a glimpse of the soulless noise we will be left with, should consumerism triumph, as he fears it might.

The orchestra, having previously performed and recorded the work, was in admirable command of its technical and musical challenges, even if the nine string players had to struggle to make their presence felt in the face of the enthusiasm of the wind, brass and percussion instruments.

Franceso Piemontesi, a former BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artist, was a nimble and reliable soloist in Mozart’s penultimate piano concerto, the ‘Coronation’, giving an idiomatic performance of great character, and abandon.

That the orchestra’s first ritornello was to finish conspicuously sharper than the pianists’ first entry in the home key was solely because the orchestra had failed to tune to the piano, and this disparity in pitch never properly resolved itself. Piemontesi was unperturbed however, and rewarded the audience’s generous reception of his performance with an encore of a Mendelssohn Song without Words.

Anna Meredith’s Smatter Hauler, taking its name from a Sherlock Holmes novel, the Victorian name for a gang of handkerchief thieves, and commissioned especially for the occasion, was essentially a ‘side by side’ music education project in which members of the Aurora orchestra performed alongside the budding young instrumentalists of the BBC Proms Youth Ensemble.

The ambition that Anna Meredith had set for her concise composition was that “At five minutes, I want the music to be – above all – clear, brash and brutal.” In this she and the musicians succeeded brilliantly, with a barrage of sound and lighting effects of almost primeval proportions.

Although the musicians also performed Anna Meredith’s 5-minute piece from memory, it was the final piece in the programme, Beethoven’s ‘Pastoral’ Symphony, which was publicized as the distinctive attraction, since it was to be performed from memory.

Recent history is of course replete with illustrious instances of such accomplishments; Hans von Bülow and his orchestra in Meiningen earned Brahms’ approval for rehearsing and performing from memory, and there are also examples of similar feats during the heyday of Soviet orchestral and ensemble playing.

I am also reminded of a performance with the Moscow Virtuosi at the Edinburgh Festival during the 1980’s for example, when I was surprised by how the musicians, huddled three to a music stand, would diligently open the music to each successive piece on the programme, but never turn the pages. Like the musicians of the TafelMusik Baroque Orchestra and Zehetmair String Quartet, who are likewise renowned for performing from memory, they had internalized not only the notes, but also every other aspect of the music they were performing.

Performing from memory requires an enormous investment of time, and the musicians of the Aurora Orchestra ought to be congratulated on a remarkable achievement in London’s fundamentally freelance profession that remains unable satisfactorily to remunerate such dedication. On this occasion it could almost certainly not have taken account of the countless hours of personal practice time required in the pursuit of this music goal.

Whether performing the symphony from memory ultimately provided the route to better Beethoven, and whether Nicholas Collon and his orchestra successfully avoided the traditional pitfalls, is the central question however.

Musicians and conductor alike appeared to relish the challenge, and whilst various rhythmic liberties and occasional scruffiness betrayed some anxiety, their collective enthusiasm and sense of satisfaction was almost palpable. By the time we reached the final note, everyone on the platform had given everything, but I was still left wondering whether the spectacle we had just witnessed constituted a reading, albeit from memory, or an interpretation?

Leon Bosch

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