The Aurora Orchestra is renowned for adventurous programming and daring feats of performance from memory. At Kings Place, where they are artists-in-residence, their principal strings presented a characteristically quirky programme of Mozart, Ligeti, and Schubert, in collaboration with pianist Shai Wosner.

Shai Wosner © Jamie Jung
Shai Wosner
© Jamie Jung

First up was an unusual iteration of Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 14 in E flat major, K449. This ‘chamber version’, put together by business-savvy Wolfgang himself for the domestic market, reduces the orchestral forces to a pair of violins and single viola, cello and double bass. The Aurora are now three years into a wider project to perform all 27 of Mozart’s piano concertos over five years. 

There was lots of mischief in the first movement, whose unusual 3/4 meter and chromatic wobbles throw us off balance, and the ensemble handled the changes of colour and mood with quicksilver brilliance. The slow movement, a singing Andantino, treated us to wonderfully lyrical playing from Wosner, whose unfaltering sense of line was sympathetically supported by viola and lower strings; the chamber arrangement worked best here, drawing out more fully the richness of some of the inner voices. 

The final movement of the concerto has lots of comic potential. Mozart’s po-faced counterpoint begs for a slapstick send-up, or at least a raised eyebrow, but the finale never quite sparkled in the way that it might, being a touch too slow and withdrawn. And this was perhaps the greatest problem with positioning Wosner as soloist behind the quintet of strings: the piano sounded a little muddy, and we lost the textural contrasts between solo and tutti, which is where the dramatic dialogue of this music really lives. Presenting the work as a kind of undiscovered piano sextet is really thought-provoking and admirable, and one certainly heard the piece anew, though it seemed strange to me to that the programme note stressed Mozart’s virtuosity as key to the piece given how understated that was in this particular performance. 

Perhaps they were saving themselves for Ligeti, which would be entirely understandable, given how relentless and fiendish his String Quartet no.1 (Métamorphoses nocturnes) is. An early work (1953/4) composed before Ligeti fled Hungary, and from a period whose music he would later disparage. More fool him, given the crackle of electricity suffusing this performance, particularly pronounced in its most whispering and unearthly moments. Ligeti’s high-wire lyricism was delivered by Aurora with devastating impact and dynamic leadership from violinist Charlotte Juillard. 

The work is cast in seventeen sections, the final ones recapping the enigmatic, Bartókian gestures of the opening, with plenty of riotous dancing in the middle. (Their pizzicatos were like gunshots, and magnificently hair-raising). As theme-and-variations, it made an apt counterpart to the Schubert we'd hear in the second half, but there were plenty of hints of the Ligeti to come: dense and dissonant clusters of notes, evoking his experiments with microtones; a blackly comic waltz suggestive of the surreal silliness of his operatic madness Le grand macabre; and the otherworldly diaphanousness of his Violin Concerto. 

It is quite bewildering that the 22-year-old Schubert was able to manifest a work of such emotional range and architectural complexity as the A major Trout Quintet of 1819. In it Schubert elevates repetition to the level of an art form, whether at the smallest scale, as in the gnawing insistence of that oddly circular phrase win the final movement, or the juxtaposition of whole sections, as in the Andante. There is much sunlight and song, the wellspring of which is the volcanic scherzo at the centre of the work’s five movements, and great performances of the Trout channel this movement’s molten lava into the rest of the piece, cooling it enough to handle, but without its warmth dissipating entirely.

It is a work where occasional shadows are cast on the blazing primary colours of A major, and Aurora and Wosner did much to draw out these tonal and dynamic nuances. The natural brightness of the piece’s home key for stringed instruments is softened by Schubert’s unusual instrumentation, losing the expected second violin in place of a dark-hued trio of double bass, cello and viola, giving the listener a mysterious shiver on an otherwise sunny day. Rich playing from the lower strings did much to generate this effect, with Sébastien van Kujik’s cello proving an aptly melancholy partner for the melodic leaders of the work, the violin and piano, and partnering gorgeously with Sascha Bota’s viola in the theme and variations of movement four, based on Schubert’s song. This was a performance that buzzed with nervous energy and luminous lyricism, though in want, at times, of a little more attack, tautness, and clarity.