“Are you sitting comfortably? Then we'll begin.” For all but the youngest sprogs in the audience, Fauré's Berceuse instantly brings to mind Listen with Mother, the BBC radio programme that ran from 1950. When Martin James Bartlett 'switched on' an old radio before he and Lara Melda launched into Fauré's gentle, rocking lullaby, it was clear: this evening was storytime with the Aurora Orchestra, Nicholas Collon and two still-youthful winners of the BBC Young Musician competition. Entitled “L'Enfance”, a story – tenuous, perhaps – was woven around young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his sister Marianne (nicknamed Nannerl).
This enabled mischievous anecdotes about 'The Kindgom of Back', spelt out – backwards, of course – on pennants strung across the balcony, the imaginary realm ruled by the Mozart children. Wolfi's Piano Concerto no. 7 in F major K242 wasn't written for him and Nannerl, but for the Countess Lodron and her young daughters Aloysia and Giuseppa, Mozart matching the parts to the varying abilities of the players, the third being very simple. Four years later, Mozart performed the score revised for just two pianos... and Nannerl was most likely his partner for the 1780 Salzburg première. With Bartlett and Melda stepping into the Mozarts' shoes, this was a performance bubbling over with youthful enthusiasm. Against a lean, lithe accompaniment, the few strings allowing the Aurora's woodwind players prominence, the two piano lines chased and dodged each other, Bartlett the more demonstrative of the two. Collon encouraged a flowing Adagio and the Rondo was full of glee. More mischief was heard in a no-nonsense account of Mozart's “Paris” Symphony after the interval. Collon conducted with great purpose, urging on the bustling first movement theme. Gruff strings in the Andantino were followed by a boisterous finale.
It was the non-Mozart pieces which came off best though. Camille Saint-Saëns was so worried that his Carnival of the Animals could damage his reputation as a serious composer that he forbade its publication, other than the swooning cello solo “The Swan”. A musical menagerie, the “grand zoological fantasy” runs the ark from lion to elephant, from aviary to aquarium, with the addition of pianists practising their scales (badly). The recorded narration introducing the work even took a pop at critics, describing the braying interjections in “People with long ears” as certain individuals reaching for their “shadowy notebooks”. Ouch.
The Aurora's performance of the Carnival roared, crowed, trumpeted and rustled with good humour. Melda and Bartlett scampered up and down their keyboards, wonderfully mistiming their scales in a ham-fisted “Pianists”, rippling fluidly for the Aquarium. Stacey Watton's Elephant was the most playful pachyderm, bouncing along daintily in his double bass solo, while the arthritic can-can Saint-Saëns filched for Tortoises was done with a sly wink. Ferocious vibrato didn't mar Torun Stavseng's Swan and the xylophone in Fossils clattered like a jiving skeleton. I haven't heard this work played with such verve for decades.
If the Kings Place platform was full for the Carnival, it was overflowing for Ravel's fairy-tale suite from Mother Goose, percussionists almost spilling off-stage. Blue fairy lights strung across the stage and music stands added an atmosphere of enchantment, but it was Ravel's score which provided the real magic. Laideronnette, Empress of the Pagodas, glittered, the contrabassoon growled in Beauty and the Beast and the naïve charm of Hop o'My Thumb brought us back to that opening Fauré lullaby. After a touching tribute from Collon to Thomas Gould, departing as the Aurora's leader, the strings played the Adagietto from Bizet's L'Arlesienne with exquisite care. Delightful.
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