On record – Aurora Orchestra / Nicholas Collon: Music of the Spheres (DG)

Pekka Kuusisto (violin), Iestyn Davies (countertenor), Sam Swallow (vocalist), Aurora Orchestra / Nicholas Collon

Mozart Symphony no.41 in C major K551 ‘Jupiter’ (1788)
Richter Journey (CP1919) (2019)
Dowland arr. Muhly Time Stands Still (1603)
Adès Violin Concerto ‘Concentric Paths’ (2005)
Bowie arr. John Barber Life on Mars? (1971)

Deutsche Grammophon 4838228 [69′]

Recorded 9 June 2019, Maida Vale Studio 1, London

Written by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

Only the Aurora Orchestra could put together an album running from Mozart to David Bowie. Yet as we have seen from their previous themed releases such as Insomnia and Road Trip, there are no gimmicks involved in their musical choices and a clear theme runs through the programming.

Music of the Spheres is no exception, beginning with Mozart’s Jupiter symphony before music from Max Richter (Journey), Dowland via Muhly (Time Stands Still) and the Violin Concerto of Thomas Adès, subtitled Concentric Paths. The soloist here is Pekka Kuusisto, while the Aurora play the Jupiter symphony entirely from memory, as they did in the BBC Proms in 2016.

What’s the music like?

There is something for everyone here. Mozart’s Jupiter symphony is his 41st and final essay in the genre, setting a new bar for the form when it was completed. While the first three movements are particularly fine it is the finale that comes in for the greatest acclamation, for its well-nigh perfect fusion of melody and counterpoint.

Richter’s Journey CP1919, is inspired by and named after the discovery of the first Pulsar star. It fits perfectly onto the tail of the Mozart, running at a slow speed and operating in C minor rather than the earlier piece’s key of C major.

By contrast Adès’ Concentric Paths operates in a wider orbit, the violin soaring at great heights over the compelling orchestral writing, which has in its spiralling strong echoes of the music of Benjamin Britten. As soloist Pekka Kuusisto has described, ‘it’s hyper-emotional music for people in an accelerating world’.

Complementing these instrumental pieces are two songs of identical length but very different form – a serene early 17th century song from Dowland and one of the best-known pop songs of the 20th century. Having heard from Jupiter and CP1919, Sam Swallow asks, to effective arranged accompaniment, is there Life On Mars?

Does it all work?

Pretty much! The Jupiter gets an athletic performance from the Aurora Orchestra – no dallying here, or lingering on expressive notes. That does mean a darkening of the slow movement, and maybe some constricted phrases, but by contrast it means an exciting first movement, a mysterious Menuetto and a lithe finale, busy and brilliantly played.

The Richter is haunting and really effective, its simplicity leaving the orchestra plenty of room to create a remote atmosphere. The songs are great too – Iestyn Davies is the perfect choice for the Dowland, with Nico Muhly’s sensitive orchestration, while Sam Swallow puts his own stamp on Life on Mars? without losing the essence of the original, which is an impressive achievement.

Yet the performance I kept coming back to was Pekka Kuusisto’s white-hot rendering of the Adès. This is terrifically difficult music to play, but he makes it sound easy even at the highest points of the violin range, and the moods range from serenity to power and even anger as the music moves relentlessly forwards. On occasion I have to admit I find Thomas Adès music hard to relate to emotionally, but this is a clear exception and the music digs deep.

Is it recommended?

Yes. The Aurora’s albums are great at bringing music of very different origins together, exposing new elements and old qualities, and it does so again here. Freshly minted Mozart and brilliantly played contemporary works, plus a good deal of imagination. What’s not to love?

Listen

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You can purchase this recording from various digital outlets via the Presto website

Friendly Fire – Natalia Gutman, London Philharmonic Orchestra / Vladimir Jurowski

natalia-gutmanFriendly Fire – Natalia Gutman (above), London Philharmonic Orchestra / Vladimir Jurowski

Royal Festival Hall, London; Wednesday 27 January 2016

Welcome to Arcana’s new ‘alternative’ reviews slot! It is an ‘ask the audience’ feature – where I (Ben Hogwood) take a friend / colleague who doesn’t normally attend a classical concert and get them to review it in the bar afterwards. First up is Tony Winter, a young-at-heart 50-something from Watford, who shares his thoughts on a program of Schnittke (Pianissimo), Shostakovich (Cello Concerto no.2) and Bruckner (Symphony no.3 – original version)

tw

Arcana: How did you prepare for this concert?

Tony: Well I had a shave (d’oh! – Ed) No, I’ve been playing some recordings of the Shostakovich and a little bit of the Bruckner. Not the Schnittke, which was a bit of a surprise! I haven’t done an enormous amount of preparation.

What was your musical upbringing?

I had a brief encounter with the violin which I never really got on with – I didn’t get on with the teacher – and then when I was about 13 the guitar, but that was rock music. I played the guitar for years. When I retire it’s going to come out again! I played in a band called The Committee, but to be fair by the time they’d risen to fame they’d chucked me out!

Name three musical acts you love and why:

I love Bach, just because of the melodies. I think you can look at other people and say the orchestration is great but for me the genius is the melody. James Rhodes says ‘the immortal Bach’, which sums it up.

I’ve been playing a lot of David Bowie recently with his demise, I was a big fan of Bowie up to about the Let’s Dance era, and now suddenly I’ve been playing some of the later albums as I’ve been guilty of overlooking some of them. I don’t like it when it gets too commercial! But I think later on he was saying that he didn’t give a shit, which is an approach I’ve always liked.

The Outside album was described as ‘difficult and industrial’ but I think it’s great. I wonder in 200 years if people will be playing Bowie? He died at the same age as Shostakovich but who knows? Only time will tell. How many people were on stage tonight, over 100? I’m sure everyone would be using that if there weren’t cost implications to it!

I don’t know whether to say the Rolling Stones or Mozart for the third!

Have you been to classical music concerts before, and if so what has been your experience?

I’ve been to a few over the years – I’ve even started going to a few operas! Living close to the Watford Colosseum I’ve been going to concerts there as I’m a bit of a lazy bugger. I tend to go to any classical concerts they put on there. I’ve seen Beethoven’s 9th at Westminster Abbey, but that was a bit echoey!

James Rhodes sticks in the mind for his more modern presentation which particularly appealed to my kids. They’re learning the piano so that helped but it helped that he stood up and made a few jokes. I’m not saying everyone has to turn into a variety act but he judged it right. I like sitting at the front in an intimate gig, but coming here tonight though I think I should drag my sorry arse into London more as I don’t think you could fit that orchestra on the stage in Watford!

What did you think of the Schnittke?

I think I’d have to give it a few more listens. It did somewhat sound like they were tuning up for a while, and I’m not sure I liked the screeching of the flute over the top. Parts of it were interesting though, and when the violins came in quietly and slowly it almost sounded like a Jimi Hendrix track where he’s playing the guitar backwards. There were elements of it that appealed to me, and I will definitely investigate more. It didn’t grab me by the throat.

What about the Shostakovich?

I enjoyed that for a variety of reasons. Because I had prepared by having a few versions on in the background it had sunk in a bit, and then when you’re actually watching it live you’ve got to concentrate on it, and I thought Natalia Gutman was obviously really fantastic. It was an interesting piece and I really enjoyed it.

What about the Bruckner?

I did enjoy it but it was a different version to the one I’d been playing. It felt like it was building up to the end for a while! When I was listening to it at home I thought there were echoes of Beethoven in it, but listening to it tonight he was heavily influenced by Wagner and I could hear that. It wasn’t as melodic as some of the Beethoven symphonies, and I wasn’t overwhelmed by it.

I don’t think Bruckner will be one of my favourites, but then again, maybe I need to go back and listen to it! It was fantastic seeing an orchestra of that size, with ten double basses. As a bit of a hi-fi geek, you think that’s what it should sound like!

What about the environment and setting of the concert, and how it was promoted?

Well they didn’t get me down here, you did! I do feel strongly about this though because at the Watford Colosseum you go down there, and they’re absolutely fantastic, and the place is quarter full. You think why is this, as it’s fantastic value for money and there are as many people on stage as in the audience!

The Royal Festival Hall is very nice though and before the concert the youth musicians of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, The Foyle Future Firsts, were great. They were playing Shostakovich’s incidental music to Hamlet, and Vladimir Jurowski got up and talked about the piece and gave us loads of facts about it for ten minutes before they played. I was hugely impressed by that, it was really nice to see and the musicians were great. It was well worth the effort getting down here early!

Arcana’s brief thoughts on the concert:

A really rewarding evening which represented great value with a concert that lasted two and a half hours. The Schnittke, as Tony says, sounded a bit like an excerpt from a horror movie.

The Shostakovich was deeply considered by Natalia Gutman, who did not play with great volume but who managed to project her thoughts to a spellbound audience. She is one of the great surviving musicians from Shostakovich’s era, and it was a humbling experience to see her play – she may have missed one particularly crucial entry in the finale but her thoughts elsewhere were extremely profound.

Finally the Bruckner, a real tour de force – and a superb account from the orchestra and the brass in particular. This is one of Bruckner’s wildest symphonies, full of ideas that are not always controlled, and Jurowski projected the tension between instinct and adhering to symphonic form. The triumphant end was well-earned.