A month into the year-long “Nature Unwrapped” programme at Kings Place, it was the turn of Aurora Orchestra to contribute to the series. The beauty of the “Unwrapped” series is that although there is a broad theme, it’s not restrictive and the artists and groups can combine it with other strands of their activities, as evident in this concert.

Alexandra Wood and Sébastien Van Kuijk play Tabakova's <i>Dawn</i> © Nick Rutter
Alexandra Wood and Sébastien Van Kuijk play Tabakova's Dawn
© Nick Rutter

The orchestra’s response to the nature theme came in the form of Dobrinka Tabakova’s Dawn, a composition from 2007, originally written for the string forces of Kremerata Baltica with lead roles for solo violin and solo cello. It is a slow-burn, evocative 15-minute piece that depicts the dawn skyscape from darkness to light through gradation of string colours. The solo violin and cello intertwine, often in the same high register, as if they are the birds awakening in the trees, while the tutti violas and cellos create low and rich chords as if reflecting the energy of the rising sun (interestingly Tabakova doesn’t use double basses). The musical language in this piece reminded me of Górecki.

The Aurora string players gave a totally committed performance – radiant, sonorous and sensuous. The two soloists, Alexandra Wood (violin) and Sébastien van Kuijk (cello), both Aurora principals stepping out into solo roles, soared confidently above the ensemble. There was a sense that the whole ensemble was breathing together, and the work unfolded organically. I don’t know if this piece was already in their repertoire, but they certainly played like it. It provided a perfect opener to the concert.

A complete survey of Mozart’s piano concertos is another current strand of Aurora, and on this occasion they performed the dark-hued C minor concerto, K491, with Nicholas Angelich as soloist. The concert grand Steinway looked huge on stage and the orchestra, complete with period timpani and trumpets, were somewhat squashed on stage, but it certainly enabled (and necessitated) a closer dialogue between soloist and orchestra, mediated by sensitive direction from Nicholas Collon. The layout of the orchestra was unusual, with the whole woodwind section huddled together to the right side of the conductor, so the oboe melodies and bassoon counter-melodies came across more vividly.

Nicholas Angelich, Nicholas Collon and Aurora Orchestra © Nick Rutter
Nicholas Angelich, Nicholas Collon and Aurora Orchestra
© Nick Rutter

Angelich's approach to Mozart was striking for its sincerity and seriousness (perhaps I felt this more keenly because I had heard Mitsuko Uchida’s more playful and flamboyant approach a week or so ago, albeit in different concertos). Fortunately, the C minor concerto, especially the piano part, lends itself to this more earnest Romantic take, and he imbued every note with intensity and precision. The articulation was crisp and clear, and his legatos were elegant and delicately shaped – at one point in the first movement cadenza it sounded almost Chopinesque. In the second movement there was a palpable contrast between the earnest piano and the more playful woodwinds, who were fine throughout. Angelich offered a poetic and wistful performance of the first of Schumann’s Kinderszenen as encore.

The evening concluded with a breezy and light-footed performance of Beethoven’s First Symphony. Here the orchestra played standing up (though not from memory on this occasion – they will perform the Pastoral from memory at their next concert on 28 March). The orchestra’s approach to Beethoven is obviously influenced by a HIP (historically informed performance) style, with swift tempi, limited use of vibrato, contrasting dynamics, and punchy articulation. Yet, the difference with period band performances is that their playing is so slick and virtuosic that there are virtually no rough edges. They eased and breezed through the symphony with such fluency and conviviality that the symphony seemed to pass by in a flash. In that sense, it was very much Beethoven for our modern age.

****1