The Aurora Orchestra Shine as their Mozart Concerto Odyssey Continues

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Reicha, Mozart, and Schubert: Aurora Orchestra, Robert Levin (piano/conductor). Hall One, Kings Place, 23.4.2016. (MB)

Robert Levin and the Aurora Orchestra
(rehearsal picture by Nick Rutter

Anton Reicha – Overture in D major

Mozart – Piano Concerto no.4 in G major, KV 41; Piano Concerto no.3 in D major, KV 40

Schubert – Symphony no.2 in B-flat major, D 125

Having greatly enjoyed the opening concert in the Aurora Orchestra’s five-year-long exploration of Mozart’s piano concertos, and having had to miss, alas, the second, I greatly looked forward to this, the third, in which the orchestra was joined by Robert Levin for the third and fourth concertos. Expectations were certainly met so far as the orchestra was concerned; likewise with respect to interesting programming. If I had some reservations, and I should not wish to exaggerate them, they related to Levin’s playing and conducting. His podium style, embodying a sort of gauche would-be razzamatazz, would certainly not have been for everyone; nor was it entirely clear to me what the punching in the air, the jumping and dancing actually contributed to the orchestral playing. That playing nevertheless remained at a high level throughout.

The concert opened with a rarity, Anton Reicha’s Overture in D major. Its slow introduction sounded promising indeed, reminiscent of other Bohemian Classical music, although certainly not without its Italianate qualities (Rossini?) Were those echoes of Weber too? It certainly all had the sense of a curtain-raiser, even though this is a concert work. Alas, the interminable main body of the work had little of interest beyond its bizarre quintuple meter; Tchaikovsky this was not. Like so much other ‘minor’ music of the Classical era – I suppose it should be counted as such, rather than ‘early Romantic’ – it chugged along, and it continued to chug, and it… The performance was fresh, alert, seemingly giving the work every chance it could. I doubt I shall be returning to Reicha’s piece, though; I feel no more tempted to do so than I ever have been by his wind quintets.

Reicha had long been settled in Paris when he composed his Overture. It was in Paris that Mozart’s two concertos – or, if you prefer, the music of other composers to which the boy added orchestral parts – were published, and it seems likely that much, at least, of the ‘original’ music became familiar to the Mozarts during their visit to the city in 1763-4. The order reversed for good programming reasons – variation in orchestral forces and key – we heard no.4, in G major, first. Its opening Allegro was lively, if somewhat driven (a hallmark of Levin’s direction, it seems). Levin was certainly unafraid to use a modern piano, but I was often left longing for rather more variation; it was often all rather dogged, indeed heavy-handed. The playing of the two flautists, Juliette Bausor and Emilia Zakrzewska, however, proved a joy. A little more string vibrato, especially from the first violins, would have been welcome in the Andante. The finale was lively, any problems lying with the original material, which perhaps might be characterised as vin ordinaire. Levin’s cadenza – improvised, as his wont – was convincing, well-proportioned, if again a little lacking in performative chiaroscuro.

The Third Piano Concerto returned us to D major, oboes, trumpets, and drums replacing flutes. This immediately sounded like D major in ‘effect’ as well as tonality. It was a vigorous performance that we heard; again, at times, I wished the piano would calm down a little, but the effort and reality of Levin’s cadenza was again much appreciated. Might another director/conductor have made the Andante less four-square? Perhaps. But there was no gainsaying the quality of the finale, originally the work of a decidedly superior composer, CPE Bach. Here, the ‘surprises’ all worked. Every musician in the orchestra was on excellent form; I especially relished contributions from the horn players, Nicolas Fleury and Richard Stroud.

Schubert’s Second Symphony had the second half to itself. Levin took the first movement very fast, perhaps too fast, but the playing was excellent: as fresh, as alert as anything on the programme. There was, moreover, no doubting the emergence of the second group from the first: often easier said than done. I am not sure that taking the exposition repeat was entirely justified, but anyway… Schubert’s stiffness of form was especially apparent in the development; whereas a Colin Davis or a Riccardo Muti can convince one otherwise, such was not to be the case from Levin. The Andante was taken, as is fashionable, at a swift tempo. All instruments, save for trumpets and drums, were given ample opportunity to shine – and took it. A vigorous, unambiguously one-to-a-bar minuet gave way nicely, necessarily to a significantly-relaxed trio. In the finale, I missed the coherence that a great conductor can impart to the music; it needs help. Nevertheless, the playing of the Aurora Orchestra musicians offered a great deal in compensation.

Mark Berry


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