For the last ten years the Aurora Orchestra has been astonishing audiences with its feats of memory. Beethoven, Brahms and Shostakovich symphonies have all been given the treatment. This was the most remarkable of them all, however: Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, with its notorious rhythmic complexities, and a score that strikes terror into the heart of seasoned players, even with the music in front of them.
The performance was preceded by a 40-minute multi-media introduction, devised by Jane Mitchell and directed by James Bonas, that started by placing the work in the context of its 1913 Paris premiere, choreographed by Nijinsky for the Russian impresario Diaghilev. Two excellent actors, Karl Queensborough and Charlotte Ritchie, brought the scenario to life, taking the parts of the leading characters.
Aurora’s conductor, Nicholas Collon, meanwhile, helped us to hear a way through the score’s tortuous intricacies by allocating a rhythm to sections of the audience in turn, then superimposing all four on one another. This had the virtue of simultaneously offering a clue as to how this remarkable ensemble mastered the music from memory: by breaking it down into a series of repeated patterns and becoming aware of the layers of texture in the score.
The performance itself, in the second part of the programme, was even more revelatory than one had a right to expect. In addition to razor-sharp rhythmic precision and immaculate ensemble, the players highlighted the preternatural beauties of the quieter passages, with their often chamber-like sonorities. The shaping of sinuous phrases and the perfectly calibrated voicing greatly enhanced the experience.
Did the playing from memory and the standing to deliver add anything? Yes, there was undoubtedly a frisson in the hall as we were held in the grip of the players’ own intense concentration. And in a curious way, something of the excitement in the air at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées that night in 1913 seemed to be recreated in the Albert Hall on Saturday. The audacity of it all, the adrenalin pumping through players and audience alike, made it a great Proms event.
By way of encore, the members of the orchestra distributed themselves in gangways round the hall to play a couple of the dances again. For a few minutes we knew what it felt like to be inside an orchestra playing this hair-raising music, and from memory.