The 2020 BBC Prom season’s much-curtailed Beethoven tribute consists of the Third and tonight’s Seventh symphony, plus a few sundries. Tonight’s Prom reflected on hearing loss, with Aurora Orchestra applying their characteristic memorisation abilities to scintillating effect.

Nicholas Collon © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Nicholas Collon
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

After a crackly Gramophone extract from the Heiligenstadt Testament, a Richard Ayres world premiere opened the concert with a haunting reflection on deafness. Ayres’ own notes for his Three pieces about Ludwig van Beethoven reveal it as a confrontation of his own hearing deficit. As such, each of the three movements (“dreaming, hearing loss, and saying goodbye”) sees the music disrupted by an insidious replication of a hearing disorder. In the first, the rich, vibrato-laden threads of sound had no sooner coalesced into a dialogue across the expanses of the RAH stage, than they were swept up into the tinnitus-like buzz of high strings. Hearing loss was distressing in its distorted, synthesiser-driven cacophony. Further warped Gramophone contributions took the piece to its close. It was difficult listening – as it should be – but grippingly effective and ultimately tragic.

The great man’s Seventh Symphony was prefaced by Nicholas Collon and Tom Service dismantling and reconstructing the piece. Some interesting features were drawn out, but at times it threatened to feel like a GCSE music revision guide, and the insistence on proclaiming the rhythmic cells of the first and second movements to be representations of Beethoven’s own name was excessively speculative. Service wandering off stage muttering “Beethoven, Beethoven, Beethoven, Beethoven!” was a stretch of credibility.

Nicholas Collon and Aurora Orchestra © BBC | Mark Allan
Nicholas Collon and Aurora Orchestra
© BBC | Mark Allan

Happily the performance proper, from memory, was entirely the opposite of its preface: organic, irresistible and thrilling. The first movement motored along with unwavering rhythmic intensity, and the natural trumpets and manual timpani bit into the big chords with relish. The Allegretto, at a steady pace, emphasised the lyrical over the brutal.

The pace quickened dramatically for the Scherzo and Finale, both taken at exuberantly breathless tempi. The crisp chattering of the woodwinds in the third, led with superb character by principal flute, and answered back with gusto by strings, never wavered in accuracy. The Trio was similarly brisk, but heroically brash in its martial outbursts and with some entertaining ornamental additions from the woodwinds. The fourth movement whirled ever onwards, ensemble meticulous thanks to the heightened eye contact afforded by the lack of music stands and with a careful sprinkling of effective individual touches from Collon. The last pages roared to a tumultuous close; there can’t be many performances where the lack of audience response is so unsettling.

This performance was reviewed from the video stream.

****1