Given that the saxophone has been around for almost two centuries, and notwithstanding its interest for the French school of composers, it is surprising that so few concertos have been written for this instrument. All the more reason then to welcome James MacMillan’s work, written for the Australian virtuoso Amy Dickson, and here receiving its London premiere with Aurora Orchestra conducted by Nicholas Collon.

Ronald Brautigam
© Marco Borggreve

Cast in three short movements, this concerto is rich in contrasts between a string orchestra in which percussive effects dominate and the voice of the saxophone which ranges from soulful embraces in its deepest register to flirtatious invocations at its uppermost end. Revelling in its folk-inspired dance material and expressing the pure joy of the ceilidh, it is a punchy, pungent and piquant piece. In the slow movement I was particularly struck by how the solo instrument achieves much of the plangency traditionally associated with the cor anglais.

Continuing its ongoing cycle of all Mozart’s piano concertos, the Aurora Orchestra was fortunate in having Ronald Brautigam as soloist for the D minor no. 20. This is generally seen as the composer’s first attempt at shifting the piano away from pure entertainment music towards the dark and demonic world of Don Giovanni and the Requiem. However, in this unusual reading the shadows were kept very much at bay. True, the orchestral introduction, with its sharp rhythms and dramatic heft, pointed to the sinister power of this big-boned work, but from his very first entry Brautigam stressed the lyricism and innate songfulness in the writing. Individual lines sparkled like the early morning rays of the sun catching dewdrops in the grass. The slow movement was taken much more swiftly than usual, assuming the character of a minuet, so that the oft-repeated opening melody emerged as part of a formal pattern. Yet with silvery-edged playing from the soloist and the central stormy G minor episode delivered at precipitate speed there was no lack of contrast. Brautigam played all three movements without a break, underlining the seamlessness with which Mozart charts an effortless course through tempestuous seas to the becalmed waters and disarming Gemütlichkeit of the buffo ending.

Quite what Felix Mendelssohn and two of his greatest admirers, Victoria and Albert, would have made of Collon’s take on the “Scottish” Symphony is anybody’s guess. To be sure, it was invigorating, intoxicating even, but also over wide stretches impetuous. Perhaps collective breath therefore needed to be regained at the end of each movement, but the pauses that were inserted are contraindicated by the composer.

Collon had most of his players standing for the second half and the sense of bodies now unconstrained gave extra lift to the pulsating rhythms of the first movement, here played with the all-important exposition repeat. There is no denying that Aurora Orchestra delivers everything that Collon asks of it, with amazing technical facility at dare-devil tempi. Yet the composer marks the second movement Vivace non troppo: this, however, was explosive Mendelssohn, with each melodic line despatched with the propulsive energy of guided missiles. Together with timpani that almost throughout sounded more like machine-gun fire than rolls of thunder, the martial elements were left uppermost in the mind. What works in Berlioz – and this combination achieved a miraculous representation of the Symphonie fantastique at this year’s Proms – does not always work in Mendelssohn. Towards the end of the opening Allegro there is a descent into moments of darkness when heavy clouds occlude the sun – this is also where the Romantic heart beats – and this episode was hurried along mercilessly.