Boisterous, fizzing Mozart made up most of this New Year’s Eve concert from Aurora Orchestra and Imogen Cooper, doubling as another entry in their five-year exploration of Mozart’s piano concertos. We began with the overture to The Marriage of Figaro, exemplary of an approach to Mozart’s music that was muscular and immediate, yet spiked with plenty of festive citrus zest. Aurora blends modern instruments with a few period inflections (natural trumpets and tap-timpani with hard sticks), and eschews vibrato for reasons of colour and texture rather than doctrine.

Imogen Cooper © Sim Canetty-Clarke
Imogen Cooper
© Sim Canetty-Clarke

Using (relatively) large forces in a small hall makes for a distinctive experience: lots of volume and immediacy – rarely have I heard Mozart sound so fortissimo or as unvarnished – but also a kind of immersive transparency. At times this hard-bodied, unmediated sound could be a little claustrophobic, and some of the lightness of Figaro sometimes got lost in what could feel like big band Mozart (more buff than buffa)

Some equilibrium returned when Imogen Cooper joined the orchestra for Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 17 in G major. Her approach offset Aurora’s ebullience with a wry, at times comic, understatement and deftness of gesture. The chromatic twists and turns of the first movement had the kind of wrong-footing friskiness that told us the musicians were having a lot of fun, as was Cooper herself, whose polished and unfussy phrasing led us through the exposition and stormy development with wit and clarity.  

Despite the gentle playfulness of its prevailing G major and fruity chromatic digressions, it is a concerto with some moments of surprising darkness, which were often moments of special musical and expressive intensity (particularly in the minor key variation of the final movement). The slow movement showcased superb woodwind playing – bassoonist Paul Boyes shone all night – whose floating arabesques were delivered with unerring musicianship and a keen sense of ensemble. Cooper’s playing at the minor key entry of the main theme was inward and melancholy, deliciously withdrawn and giving the work dazzling emotional range, and her restraint throughout the performance balanced Aurora’s more Byronic take on the music. The theme and variations finale featured more feathery virtuosity from Cooper in the piano interjections, and a soulful minor key interlude; Aurora’s horns blazed rudely and triumphantly in a comic, almost Rossini-esque finale. 

Aurora’s Mozart had a sort of supercharged fury – espresso martini rather than the fizz of vintage Champagne – whose fieriness was cleansing and purifying rather than just freshening. There were plenty of moments of repose in Mozart’s E flat Symphony no. 39 – the gently swaying return of the main theme after a stormy development section in the first movement, for instance – and it was never once vulgar nor garish. But the muscularity and energy they found in the highly motivic first movement seemed to presage Beethoven’s Eroica more than anything else, with decisiveness of attack and textural density that was full of Romantic darkness and intensity. The diminished harmonies and crunchy dissonances that pepper the first movement were daringly abrasive, a mood established in the fulsome drama in the third chord of the symphony’s slow introduction, which the runs in the violins propulsive and determined rather than merely decorous filigree.  

In other hands this might’ve been leaden and incongruous, but Aurora’s pointed changes of colour and clean, restrained string timbres preclude getting stuck in the mud. There was plenty of Mozart’s charmingly coarse humour too: the woodwind were clearly having a cacophonous blast in the hooting Ländler (again, redolent of the village musicians of Beethoven’s Pastoral symphony). And the final movement zipped to a breathless, quicksilver conclusion, whose contrapuntal games were played with glittering string flourishes. Bracing and hugely refreshing. 

I would have been happy for things to end there, but as it was New Year’s Eve we were served up a slightly glutinous portion of Strauss. “Fifteen years with Aurora and I’ve managed to avoid it!” joked Nicholas Collon, and whilst it was all delivered with good humour the polkas, marches, and waltzes felt a little tacked-on. The Blue Danube is hard to pull off when you’re as arch and knowing as Aurora are in their music-making, and whilst not a foot was put wrong technically speaking, it lacked the finish and grandeur one finds in the Mitteleuropean traditions of performing this music. The Pizzicato and Tritsch-Trastch polkas were given plenty of sparkle, but Aurora never quite settled into the style. But it hardly mattered: the audience were having a great time, ebulliently clapping along in the closing Radetzky March; Collon radiates a warmth and sense of fun that brings everyone with him. 

****1