To paraphrase Tom Service’s words as compère at Kings Place last night: when faced with your inner demons, there are two choices – fight or flight. Mozart treated us to blissful escape. Shostakovich stood shoulder to shoulder with us as we faced our demons down.

Steven Osborne and members of Aurora Orchestra
© Monika S Jakubowska | Kings Place

For the Mozart Piano Concerto no. 23 in A major, played in Ignaz Lachner’s chamber arrangement, Aurora Orchestra was reduced to its five principal string players and joined by pianist Steven Osborne. It took me longer than I expected to accept the loss of richness of sound caused by the reduced forces, but I soon warmed to the benefits of greater clarity in detail of the harmonies and in individual instrumental timbre. I particularly enjoyed the earthy tones of Ben Griffiths’ double bass as one could hear his bow grip the strings.

Osborne’s playing was understated to the point of self-effacement. But while I might have preferred the piano to be more forward, with more rumble in the lower registers, I could do nothing but marvel at Osborne’s smoothness: the legato passages so even that each phrase was a single flowing entity, but with each note ringing clearly. When Mozart gave us isolated notes rather than continuous phrases, Osborne showed exceptional delicacy of touch in giving each note exactly the right weight to make its musical point. The second movement Adagio was a thing of serene beauty, the warmth of low strings, the lovely interplay between soloist and string players and the release of suspended chords bringing us to a deeply satisfying place of happiness. The rondo finale brought cheer, albeit with a level of self-control; we never quite had carefree abandon.

Aurora Orchestra
© Monika S Jakubowska | Kings Place

Listening to the Shostakovich Piano Quintet in G minor, a doctor would not take long to diagnose bipolar disorder. The music reaches heights of sublime calm that would do Mozart proud, but then, before you know it, the string sound has tightened into a state of extreme, gut-wrenching stress. And then the tension relaxes: the composer has grabbed us by the hand, led us to the brink of the abyss, forced us to stare down it, and then gently led us back. The weight of tread is constantly changing, at its most heavy-footed in the demonic third movement Scherzo: always in three time, we move from a heavily accented but cheerful dance into the epitome of the demonic fiddler and then a raucous village dance. The pace of mood shifts was dizzying.

Like the second movement Fugue, the fourth movement Intermezzo radiates calm, only to be punctuated by severe stress. The opening was reminiscent of the Bach Air, Alexandra Wood playing a long-breathed melody in the high register of her violin to the perfectly weighted accompanying beat of Sébastien van Kujik’s cello, giving way to the gossamer touch of Osborne’s piano. But the black mood and the fear return with the intervention of the other players. The contrasts continue in the last movement, until it reaches a decidedly ambiguous ending. 

Steven Osborne and members of Aurora Orchestra
© Monika S Jakubowska | Kings Place

Between two works filled with emotion in their different ways came a work that did not move me at all: the world premiere of Points of intersection by Sylvia Lim, scored for trombone and string quartet. Lim’s interest is in taking a simple musical idea and exploring it in the finest detail using unusual musical sounds and textures: we had lip trills and breathiness on the trombone, strings bowed parallel to the neck and a host of other effects. I have to question the programming here: while I’m sure that there are plenty of people interested in Lim’s brand of experimental music and some of those will also love Mozart, I struggle to imagine anyone who would want to listen to both in the same concert.

Kings Place’s approach to Covid-19 safety is impeccable: enforced mask-wearing properly distanced seating and careful crowd management made us feel completely safe at all times. And with the Shostakovich quintet proving to be a work to which I shall now return again and again, this was a concert which provided both catharsis and balm for the soul.

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