You couldn’t fault the programme for Brett Dean and Aurora Orchestra’s concert at Wigmore Hall: three classic 20th-century works of searing intensity to accompany a world premiere well worthy of such exalted company. Performances, however, were mixed.

Allan Clayton
© Sim Canetty-Clarke

The first half of the programme consisted of two cycles setting poetry by Arthur Rimbaud. Britten’s Les Illuminations was followed by the unqualified success of the evening: the world premiere of Josephine Stephenson’s setting of selected parts of Une Saison en Enfer. Rimbaud’s verse is hard to negotiate – allusive and surreal at its best, druggy and nonsensical at its worst – but Stephenson (who is young and throughly bilingual) has done a creditable job of choosing five short selections which make musical sense. Her music displays an assurance beyond her years: there is a bewitching combination of dissonance and sweet-toned cantabile and a multiplicity of inventive string textures, all carefully matched to Rimbaud’s wild mood swings. Allan Clayton was announced to be singing the work in spite of illness and was clearly husbanding his strength, but his “Alchemy of the word” was persuasive and his final Farewell was heart-melting. This is only the second time that Stephenson has appeared on these pages and I’m looking forward to hearing a great deal more from her in future.

Aurora Orchestra have been much praised for their exuberance and high energy levels. This evening, however, they did not seem a good match for either the venue or the repertoire. It’s hard to cram eighteen or more performers onto the stage at the Wigmore and keep them in good contact with the audience; worse, the very brightness and energy of their playing rather overpowered both the size and brightness of the hall and the subtlety of the music. Their highly incisive accenting was problematic when accompanying voice, often shining above the soloist where they should have been more in the background. The one instrumental piece of the evening, Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in memoriam Benjamin Britten, disappointed. Pärt’s work gains its spirituality from smoothness of timbre combined with the insistence of rhythm that is being passed from one instrument group to the next but needs to be exactly on the beat: here, rhythm was ragged and timbre too hard-edged to get the spirituality.

From the days of Peter Pears onwards, Les Illuminations has been sung by a tenor more often than by a soprano (the work was originally composed for Sophie Wyss), so it was interesting to hear it sung here by Ailish Tynan, who threw herself into the intense passions of the work. But Tynan’s performance foundered on the rocks of diction: without burying my head in the programme, I found it impossible to make out more than an occasional word of the French. However good the many other aspects of Tynan’s performance, this work is all about the words and the loss of these was hugely disappointing.

The final work of the programme, Britten’s Serenade for tenor, horn and strings started with its solo horn introduction, its ringing natural notes played beautifully by Christopher Parkes. With Clayton replaced for this work by Robert Murray, we saw Aurora at their best of the evening, no more so than in the central Elegy, with Murray’s diction clear and gorgeous interplay between voice and horn. The following Dirge, with its harsh medieval words of warning to the soul on its way to Purgatory, conjured real excitement from both voice the orchestra, while Parkes’ Epilogue, delivered from offstage, provided an elegiac end to the evening.