BBC Proms Diary 2018: Shostakovich from Aurora

This has not been an easy week.

The trip to Suffolk forced me to confront some ugly truths which cannot be overlooked any more. I returned to London feeling battered and bruised. The morning after (Wednesday) I felt like I’d run a marathon the day before. A chilling void followed.

The music I started to listen back to on Wednesday (Aurora Orchestra’s late night Shostakovich programme) didn’t seem to cut it. Not at first.

That’s not to say the performances I was listening to didn’t hold my attention. Nor that they failed to display any merit. Far from it. I was just a bit sore. 

I’ve listened to Aurora’s Shostakovich programme maybe five or six times since. I’m still not sure it’s required listening by all, but it’s lodged itself in my consciousness. Replacement memories have constructed themselves during each successive listen.

Despite the hype dripping from the live broadcast of their concert, the Aurora’s ‘play it from memory and move around a bit’ did result in a noticeably richer, more colourful sound.

They are undoubtedly a fantastic band. They approach everything with vim and vigour (there’s even an endearing hint of teenage bravado about them too).

Aurora are more likeable as a brand than MusicAeterna‘s ‘rock star’ marketing Sony Classical pushed and the BBC reflected in their broadcasts.

Aurora’s woodwind demonstrated the extent to which playing stood up and from memory has on the sound: soloistic playing gives the music more of a chance to shine.

I listened to the broadcast arse about face, starting with Shostakovich 9. Memories flooded back. Post-county youth orchestra tour in the summer of ’89, I’d secured the Lenningrad and symphony number nine on Chandos from a record shop in Cambridge. SYO playing his fifth had unlocked something. I wanted more. On a first listen, his ninth symphony presented itself as a calling card for efficiency, compactness and utter brilliance – a start contrast to the epic imposing Lenningrad. Summer 1989: the first steps.

What pulled me back to the present was the beginning of the Proms broadcast – pianist Denis Kozhukhin’s playing in the second movement of the Shostakovich’s second piano concerto. The Aurora maintained a modest distance with its pained opening melody; the piano’s melodic material a wistful and healing counterpoint.

I’m familiar with this work. Heard it loads of times before now. But it’s never touched me in this way before. Sat there at the desk, looking out over the garden I’ve steered clear of for the past 12 months for fear my inner slacker will run rampant, and started to cry. Tuesday’s unpleasantness had found the valve.

The second movement conveys something so painfully lonely it’s almost too much to bear. There’s an underlying hint of determination. We’re not going to be beaten. We’re going to find what we need from wherever we can find it. And somehow, we’re going to kick it all down. We will find our space in the world.

This and the third movement that followed has grown on me during the repeat listens I’ve flown through over the past 48 hours. It’s retrieved me from wherever it was I was languishing. That a live performance can achieve something so incredibly valuable to me personally reinforces what an an amazing genre of live performance this music really is. 

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