In meteorological terms it might be autumn, but it feels more like the rustle of spring. Slowly, more and more green shoots are appearing in the previously desiccated musical landscape, and in this respect Germany is leading the way. With shorter programmes all given before socially distanced audiences and usually repeated the same evening, the major concert-halls are reopening for business. The NDR house orchestra kicked off in the Elbphilharmonie at the start of the month, and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra was the first of several visitors lined up for the coming months.

Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Sir George Benjamin
© Daniel Dittus

Without a permanent home or base of its own, the MCO depends more than most ensembles on touring to sustain its business model. For that reason alone it was very welcome indeed to see these 50-something musicians, led by Matthew Truscott, appearing with Sir George Benjamin and Pierre-Laurent Aimard. Only half a year ago music lasting just over an hour would have appeared a lean offering, but these days we are all grateful for any kind of live music. 

Janáček’s fascination for matters zoological found expression not only in his late opera The Cunning Little Vixen but also, one year later, in his Concertino. In 1927, two years after composing the piece, Janáček provided a commentary in which he likened the behaviour of the solo horn in the opening movement to that of a trapped hedgehog. The trills of an E flat clarinet in the second movement suggest a fidgety squirrel and in the slower central section of the third movement owls hoot from deep within a becalmed nocturnal atmosphere. Yet it was the characteristically sharp and bright sounds of this composer’s music, accentuated also in these pristine acoustics by the needle-point clarity and precision of these players – six in the case of the Concertino plus piano soloist – which made the strongest impression. Aimard was an authoritative guide through the four movements, relishing the rhythmic tautness and astringency of the varying dialogues, none more so than in the concluding Allegro section where the different instrumental voices compete for attention before unity is restored in the closing bars. 

Pierre-Laurent Aimard
© Daniel Dittus

I am often puzzled by the choice of names given to contemporary works. Benjamin’s first piece for piano and orchestra, written for Aimard and premiered at the Lucerne Festival in 2008, is called simply Duet. That is an understatement by far. Dispensing entirely with violins – the composer regards high piano notes pitted against high strings as an intractable problem – Benjamin takes his listeners on a vast aural journey, bleak and uncompromising for the most part, though never static, and with a rugged filmic power. The piece begins with a sense of agitation from the piano alone and ends with whiplash chords deployed by the full orchestra. In between in this fine performance we had beguiling spectral effects, ghostly flickers from the strings, muted trumpets, chiming percussion and a whooshing harp, and moments of enchanting stillness, the individual notes picked out with great tenderness by Aimard.

The opening item’s fairy-tale promptings were echoed in the closing work, Ravel’s homage to the innocence of childhood. In his direction of the complete Mother Goose ballet Benjamin limited himself to sparing gestures, nudging a little here, teasing a little there: nothing was overwrought or flecked with false sentiment. Cool in tone it may have been, but the delicacy of the textures and the rich sparkling colours of this magical score glittered and twinkled as seen through a laser beam.