Kopatchinskaja stars as the Aurora Orchestra plays Beethoven, Shostakovich and Xenakis

United KingdomUnited Kingdom BBC Proms 2022, Prom 22 – Xenakis, Shostakovich, Beethoven: Henry Baldwin (percussion), Patricia Kopatchinskaja (violin), Tom Service (presenter), Aurora Orchestra / Nicholas Collon (conductor / presenter). Royal Albert Hall, London, 2.8.2022. (CC)

 Nicholas Collon conducts the Aurora Orchestra © BBC/Mark Allan

XenakisO-Mega (1997)
Shostakovich – Violin Concerto No 1 in A minor, Op.99 (1947/8, rev. 1955)
Beethoven – Symphony No.5 in C minor, Op.67 (1807/8)

Written for 13 instruments and percussion, O-Mega, Xenakis’s last work has all of that great composer’s key traits, but they are concentrated into an almost Webernian span of four unforgiving minutes. The emotional hit is vast. The title explains in its very structure the derivation of the work ‘Omega’ (O-Mega literally means ‘big O’). As the last letter of the Greek alphabet, there is certainly something inbuilt that is valedictory, and so a terse summation seems entirely in order. We hear the music in blocks, with musicians at the back of the stage. In this performance, less raw than some, one heard panels of sound, a stately processional heard against nagging drum riffs. Henry Baldwin was the excellent foregrounded percussionist, an independent spirit against regimental marital forces. It is all too easy perhaps to imagine from that the idea of how Shostakovich wrote his First Violin Concerto in a state of despair.

It was Patricia Kopatchinskaja who was due to perform this piece in Strasbourg in May; she was replaced on that occasion at two days’ notice by Simone Lamsma (review click here). Kopatchinskaja is without doubt a force of nature and we saw that repeatedly here, from the coiled energy of her body posture waiting for the opening of the Scherzo to the superhuman performance of the infamous cadenza. The Aurora Orchestra under Collon were fine partners, but Shokhakimov in Strasbourg persuaded his players to inhabit the piece more. Kopatchinskaja played the threnody of the first movement (marked Nocturne) with an unflagging but withheld energy, daring to whisper, the odd bow shake presumably the result of yet another risk. We heard the tension in the pianissimi as much as in the climaxes. The apex of her account was the Scherzo, the Aurora woodwind playing with quicksilver responses, loads of spirit here, with just the occasional moment of occlusion (difficult to avoid in this venue) – by far the most successful movement.

It was the Passacaglia and the ensuing cadenza that came the closest to searing intensity here, Kopatchinskaja digging in as only she can and providing real tension between notes and phrases in the cadenza, her pianissimi drawing the large audience to silence. The Burlesque finale was sometimes only just together, though one remembered the preternatural ensemble of the Strasbourg performance clearly, and the extra abandon Lamsma brought to the very close.

Nicholas Collon conducts the Aurora Orchestra and Patricia Kopatchinskaja (violin) © BBC/Mark Allan

There was also a slightly uncomfortable feeling that it was Kopatchinskaja who was carrying the performance. The orchestra sounded light, somewhat insubstantial for this work. Quite rightly, no encore despite prolonged applause. ‘I know it is the Proms,’ said PatKop; ‘I love you all and you deserve an encore. But after such a piece, which was written out of outrage and despair about war and tyranny and despots, I think there is nothing else to say’. She gave us a message for our time, for sure, and she did it through the most eloquent way possible, Shostakovich’s music.

The second half had Tom Service and Nicholas Collon run-through the Beethoven Fifth Symphony we would hear, with musical excerpts also performed by memory by the Aurora Orchestra, which was fascinating. Service got us all clapping (shades of Hervé Niquet at Versailles recently, when he split the audience into sections during the performance of an opera, and had us all sing – yes, sing! – Frère Jacques in a round). With the help of four percussionists here, Collon and Service were able to show how Beethoven wrote chains of the first movement’s prevailing rhythm work, and how the rhythm is used as an accompaniment to the contrasting subject.

Nice to hear the presenters ask questions as well as tell the audience stuff: is the second movement a prayer, muttered speech? Is there even an ‘Amen” (the tail-end of the phrase). We also got hints of the performance to come interpretatively – the fast speed and light textures linked certain passages of the second movement strongly to the next symphony, the ‘Pastoral’. Interesting, too, to hear the link to Mozart’s 40th Symphony finale embedded in Beethoven’s sketchbooks. The substitution of the Marseillaise instead of the actual beginning of the finale was both amusing and stimulating – the idea of a revolutionary song echoing around the streets of Vienna at the time of the Napoleonic Wars. Collon suggests the actual theme is based on tropes present in these songs, and that Beethoven conjures up a marching band through the addition of the three instruments that arrive in this finale: contrabassoon, a trio of trombones and a piccolo. Cue lots of fun – ‘put your hands in the air when you hear the Marseillaise, down if Beethoven’ in an unholy mishmash to prove a point. Very clever – and point taken.

The actual performance itself was gripping – tensile in the first movement, like a coiled spring. I do wonder why they use original trumpets and timpani but modern valved horns (and you can hear the smoothness of the valve horn in the first movement). Collon’s attention to detail was remarkable – he shaped phrases, even short ones, almost tenderly within the overall C minor energy, no easy feat. Hunches that the slow movement (actually not very slow) was going to shine turned out to be correct. It was a dream, a revelation even. Tripping woodwind, beautifully smooth strings all conspired to create Beethoven magic.

While that tensile core of the first movement returned for the Scherzo, it was the Trio that impressed, the double-basses scampering with delicious clarity and lightness. The finale benefitted from the drama of the repeat; it had emerged from a well-calibrated build-up (I wonder if anyone heard the Marseillaise in their head?). Worth pointing out the balance sounded better in the hall than on radio (in the latter, the trumpets tend to dominate rather). The coda felt entirely natural, if not overwhelming. Nice, too, to hear low/no vibrato strings in this performance, reflecting the performance’s overall buoyancy and, particularly, clarity.

Good, too, to see a near-capacity hall. Yes, Beethoven Fifth in the second half with listening guide is doubtless a pull; but Shostakovich and Xenakis (even if it’s only four minutes’ worth) in the first, one would have thought, would put off some. But apparently not, and that, surely, is cause for celebration in itself.

Colin Clarke

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