Sunday 31 July 2016

Prom 21: Leleux/Aurora/Collon - Rihm, Strauss, and Mozart, 31 July 2016

Royal Albert Hall

Rihm – Gejagte Form
Strauss – Oboe Concerto in D major
Mozart – Symphony no.41 in C major, KV 551

François Leleux (oboe)
Aurora Orchestra
Nicholas Collon (conductor)

Tom Service presents Nicholas Collon and the Aurora Orchestra deconstructing Mozart’s Symphony No. 41 ‘Jupiter’ at the BBC Proms
Image: Chris Christodoulou/BBC Proms

The Aurora Orchestra and Nicholas Collon opened this afternoon concert with the Proms premiere of the 2002 revision of Wolfgang Rihm’s 1995-6 work, Gejagte Form (the original version having been performed by the London Sinfonietta under Markus Stenz in 1998). Rihm’s ‘hunted’ form seems to suggest – and certainly did in performance – a search for form, to suggest a state of form, as it were, ever forming. Such an idea could hardly be more indicative of the composer’s deep roots in German Romanticism. Here the Aurora players, more ensemble than orchestra, proved sure guides – or, better, discoverers. The virtuosic, well-nigh diabolical violin soloists at the beginning (Alexandra Wood and Jamie Campbell) offered us expressionistic fiddling, seemingly both in contradiction with each other but also co-dependent; such, after all, is part of the difficulty of co-dependency. Already, with the double bass entry that followed, we seemed to catch an aural glimpse of that formal quarry; it soon escaped us again, returning briefly, yet differently, with the same instrument’s pizzicato. And so, the hunt was well under way, Messiaenic, jagged woodwind chords and, eventually, brass instruments too joining the throng.  Rhythmic frenzy seemed almost, yet not quite, ever-present; its absence seemed almost always to imply prior presence. Moments of stasis were rare; they too seemed, with thrilling drama, defined by their difference. Percussion perhaps hinted at Henze’s ‘Ride of the Mænads’ from The Bassarids. Rihm’s music revealed itself as a successor perhaps to the Schoenberg of the First Chamber Symphony, even to Stockhausen’s Kontrapunkte, perhaps more surprisingly still, in its near-balletic drama, to The Rite of Spring.

Following a brief yet eloquent discussion between oboist, François Leleux, and Tom Service, we heard Strauss’s Concerto, surely the greatest for the instrument. The opening cello motif proved properly generative; so, in its very different way, did Leleux’s long-breathed opening solo. Orchestra (very much of the chamber variety) and soloist together suggested a post-Mozartian aria. Leleux offered a stunning variety of colour and articulation throughout, without the slightest impediment to the longer line; one sensed, rightly or wrongly, that this was very much his vision of the work. Collon proved equally flexible, an estimable accompanist. Hushed playing truly drew one in, even in a less than ideal acoustic. The transition to the slow movement was well handled: not quite imperceptible, which is just as it should be, for change as well as continuity should register. Leleux’s oboe cantilena ravished, the best efforts of an army of bronchial activists notwithstanding. There was, moreover, considerable depth to the orchestral playing, not least from the wonderful Harmoniemusik – with all the musico-historical resonance that word brings to us, and did to Strauss. The oboe sang, so it seemed, as a messenger of hope, emerging from an orchestral voice of sadness. The finale caught the right note of reflective jubilance, with more than the occasional hint of the composer’s operatic œuvre: Capriccio, Daphne, Arabella, perhaps even Ariadne. This was a lovely performance indeed.

For the second half, we turned to Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony. It was introduced by Service, Collon, and the players; or rather, the finale was, breaking it down ably, in a thoroughly admirable example of exploratory educational work. ‘Analysis for all,’ one might say. More unusual still was the decision to play it from memory. Clearly that cannot be done with every orchestral performance, but there was undoubted energy, excitement too, to be gained from the experience. There could, moreover, be no gainsaying the excellence of the playing, although I was less enthusiastic about Collon’s conception of the work, or at least about aspects thereof. Symphonic understanding of it as a whole, as opposed to a suite, often proved elusive, at least to my ears. I also could not help but miss larger forces in this preposterously large, ill-shaped hall, but we had (strings what we had.  

Agogic mannerism marred Collon’s presentation of the opening (similarly when repeated, and in the recapitulation) of the first movement; Harnoncourt et al. have much to answer for. Balance was often odd, brass (rasping trumpets, although modern horns were used) too often overwhelming the strings. The second subject fared better, sounding and feeling more ‘naturally’ breathed. There was a strong sense of dialectical conflict to the development section, but much less, sadly, seemed to be at stake in both exposition and recapitulation. The slow movement was strong on rhetorical contrast, rendering it full of character, full of life: all to the good, but sometimes achieved at the expense of the longer line. It was taken pretty swiftly for an Andante, but worked well at that pace. Minor-mode sections sounded duly dark; this was for me the most impressive movement in the performance. I did not take at all to the one-to-a-bar approach, however fashionable it has become, to which the Minuet was subjected. Robbed of its grandeur, it sounded both breathless and pompous, although that extraordinary woodwind chromaticism still sounded sinuous enough. The Trio was less impulsive and all the better for it. Alas, the finale, so ably discussed beforehand, proved hard-driven indeed in performance. (Just because one can play something so fast does not mean one must!) At least as harmful was the return of such brass-heavy orchestral balance. It was the quieter passages that proved more telling, not least a suspenseful approach to the coda. Brilliant though the playing was, and undeniably impressive though it was to have played it from memory, a more smiling, less hectic view of the work from the conductor would have been welcome.