Orchestras (and other ensembles) around the world keep bearing the brunt of necessary restrictions caused by the coronavirus. Last week, the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra was forced to close its doors for at least three weeks, and the situation is worse still on the other side of the Atlantic, where the New York Philharmonic had to cancel its entire 2020-21 season.

Kings Place, Hall One
© Nick Rutter

In our Covid-infested world, a new paradigm of concert life had to be developed. With innovative planning, an alternative format has successfully been tried by (usually) smaller ensembles, proving that the centuries-old tradition of public concerts is not dead, it only needs to be rejuvenated. Last Saturday’s concert by Aurora Orchestra offered a great example of this relatively recent, viable concept: a live concert in front of socially distanced, thus small in number, spectators while at the same time being streamed for a small fee to a world-wide audience.

Adamant to continue their series performing all 27 piano concertos by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Aurora turned to a reduced orchestration of the Piano Concerto no. 25 in C major, K503, for piano and string quintet. The overly fastidious listener may have complained about the absence of the full orchestral regalia at the majestic tutti opening with horns, trumpets and timpani, but if that facilitates a performance in 2020, then thanks must be bestowed upon the German composer, Ignaz Lachner, who created the chamber ensemble arrangement almost two centuries ago.

Imogen Cooper and members of Aurora Orchestra
© Nick Rutter

Unusually for a piano concerto performance, the five string players were positioned in front of the solo instrument. Even more puzzling, however, was their seating plan. The violist sat, turning slightly towards the back of the stage, where ordinarily one would expect to see the first violinist, who, in turn, sat behind her. There was certainly a reason for this oddity, but it was not explained.

Imogen Cooper, the Grand Dame of British pianism, performed the soloist's role with grace, imbued with sparkling musicianship. Her articulation never lacked warmth and clarity, a trait particularly helpful with an unconducted ensemble, and most noticeable in the gentle rubato of the transitional passages. Her unique ornaments, especially in the slow movement (mostly runs filling large intervals), stylishly decorated Mozart’s musical lines.

If streaming is a newly developing genre, its success is influenced by the technical details, such as positioning of microphones and the camera work. Both would have gained from more care on this occasion. The piano’s upper registers often sounded overly loud and occasionally harsh (not the soloist’s fault!) and changes from one camera angle to the next took place with nearly complete disregard to the flow and narrative of the music.

Imogen Cooper and members of Aurora Orchestra
© Nick Rutter

Monody for the World of the Two Skylarks by young Scottish composer, Electra Perivolaris, is yet another result of the fecund relationship between the Aurora Orchestra and BBC’s Young Composers Competition. It was commissioned for, and premiered at, this concert. Written with an assured hand and enjoying the benefits of a committed performance, this composition confidently integrated less common sounds (for example, the lower strings playing behind the bridge with their bow) with easily recognisable tools, such as extended pairing of instruments, a regularly recurring dotted rhythm or even a C major chord.

The last item on the programme, the Piano Quintet in A major, The Trout”, by Franz Schubert noticeably changed the musicians’ approach. While in the Mozart concerto, Cooper’s concept of the composition understandably reigned and the string ensemble followed her in all aspects, the pianist here willingly and empathetically accepted to be one of the five musical members. That, in turn, increased the string players’ individual musical responsibilities, a task they mostly fulfilled. Fine details occasionally left something to be desired. For example, the phrasing of a melody that a string player (mostly the first violin) repeated after the piano, did not always follow its earlier model. Dynamic subtleties (so precisely marked by the composer but perhaps hard to hear clearly on speakers), such as the famous Trout variation theme’s first half to be performed pianissimo but the second half piano, seemed at times overlooked.

Minor quibbles aside, this was a well-balanced concert, appropriately in a chamber music format, where the teamwork of solid artistic administration and excellent performers proved that even in the current dire circumstances, quality music making is still possible.

This performance was reviewed from the Kings Place video stream