Beethoven from Memory: a brilliant Prom from the Aurora Orchestra

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Richard Ayres, Beethoven: Aurora Orchestra / Nicholas Collon (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 and BBC Four, 10.9.2020. (CS)

Nicholas Collon conducts the Aurora Orchestra at the 2020 BBC Proms
(c) BBC/Chris Christodoulou

Richard AyresNo.52 (Three pieces about Ludwig van Beethoven, dreaming, hearing loss, and saying goodbye) (BBC co-commission, world premiere)

Beethoven – Symphony No.7 in A major Op.92

There have been many homages to and musical conversations with Ludwig van Beethoven in this, his 250th anniversary year, but there can be none more poignant, honest and, ultimately, life-affirming, than Richard Ayres’ No.52, subtitled ‘Three pieces about Ludwig van Beethoven, dreaming hearing loss, and saying goodbye’.  For, as Ayres explained to BBC presenter, Tom Service, about twenty years ago, when he was in his late thirties, he began to experience the hearing loss which has since progressively worsened.

Ayres must truly appreciate Beethoven’s own suffering, as he became increasingly afflicted by deafness – indeed, he described the “horrific part of it”, having “to rely on imagination to understand what you are doing”.  But, No.52, the broadcast of which was recorded earlier in the day by the Aurora Orchestra and their conductor Nicholas Collon, has an ebullience and even spikiness worthy of Beethoven himself at his most insistent and obsessive.  And, Ayres described what one might feel is a rather dislocating process of composition as being “much more vivid, more three dimensional and lively”, though there was poignancy in his recognition that he is probably going to be able to hear the music he has composed.

No.52 was prefaced by a reading of an excerpt from the Heiligenstadt Testament, the letter which Beethoven wrote to his brothers Carl and Johann on 6th October 1802, concerning his increasing deafness.  The first section ‘Saying goodbye’ whispered its way into life, with the hiss and crackle of a gramophone and quiet string harmonics.  Then, a lone cello articulated three long notes, each rising an octave, stretching like harmonic series, climbing and exploring.  Gradually the motifs developed, tentatively, acquiring a gentle warmth, enveloped in what Ayres describes as ‘tinnitus-like, foggy strings’.  It was as if the individual tones, played by string soloists, were speaking to each, emphasising the interconnectedness of sounds; as if the sounds were living things, shaping their own world.  Growing, flowing, discovering, the music was both exploratory and joyful, gradually gaining in vigour and assertiveness, even petulance and anger.

Repetitive keyboard patterns, played on a synthesiser opened ‘Dreaming’, with chordal interjections.  The pulse was steady but disrupted by irregular rhythms and broken phrases, and disintegration and wildness became increasingly threatening.  A voiceover of noises, cries and screams, and the stabbing urgency of accelerating, ever louder tutti chords created a thrilling wild energy.  Collon’s smile was broad, and he relished the dynamism and confidence of the music, until it eventually wore itself out.  The third and final part pitted ominous brass, including a trombone cimbasso, again staccato strings and chuntering woodwind, with interruptions by a 78rpm recording of the same music, with attendant crackles and fizzing.  Built on the reiteration of competing fragments, the music felt like an anarchic celebration of sound itself, driven by its own inner energy.

There was more obsessive repetition and compulsive energy in Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, performed live and from memory by the Aurora Orchestra and Collon, and which was preceded by a twenty-minute ‘analysis’ of the work by the conductor and service (scripted by Jane Mitchell), which sought to illuminate – with the Aurora musicians providing musical illustration – the way Beethoven makes rhythm the ‘life force’ that drives each of the four movements.

Just as Ayres’ No.52 had highlighted the way that musical sound is a visceral sonic experience, felt within as much as heard without, so Collon and his musicians both treasured Beethoven’s ‘sounds’ for their own sake and made them converse with unceasing dynamism – not so much assertive, but innately confident, buoyant and self-vitalising.  The Vivace burst cheerfully into life from the exploratory Sostenuto opening, skipping gleefully.  Rhythms were lithe.  Instrumental colours were loving coaxed to the fore.  Dynamics were finely distinguished.  The Allegretto padded softly, restrained and eloquent at first.  The woodwind solos, crafted and nurtured with such care, formed a conversation of tenderness and beauty, above the reiterated tread of the strings; the latter articulated their counterpoint with delicacy and clarity.  Collon made the movement feel spontaneous and alive.  The Presto was cheekily insouciant with flashes of over-excitedness, never reckless, always stylishly elegant.  The final Allegro wore its ‘con brio‘ with flair and pride: this was terrifically crisp, clean and vivacious music-making.

Wagner called the Seventh Symphony ‘the apotheosis of the dance’; and, it really was impossible to sit still while listening to this brilliant performance by the Aurora Orchestra – a performance which spread joy and hopefulness, of which we are all much in need at present.

Claire Seymour

This concert is available if you click here.  All of the 2020 Proms concerts can be accessed on BBC Sounds or watched on BBC iPlayer until Monday 12 October.

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