The Australian Chamber Orchestra established its impressive credentials playing music of the Classical and Baroque periods, which suit its size and the director’s style of conducting from within the orchestra. Yet Richard Tognetti has been open to contemporary works and projects that have seen the ACO stay among the foremost ensembles of its type, not just in Australia but well beyond.
By including a work such as a Brahms symphony in this program the ACO took on a new challenge, to expand its ranks and yet retain its distinctive sound while performing a massive and complex work. In meeting the challenge it certainly did no harm that the guest artists came from fine orchestras within Australia and overseas.
Playing to a full house, the augmented ACO began its concert of Mozart and Brahms with the Overture to The Magic Flute. The declamatory chords that opened the piece were a fine way to start the concert, and the music soon settled to a mellow Mozartian theme that was familiar territory for the orchestra.
Director Richard Tognetti gave the lead to the counterpoint section which was brisk and seemingly effortless. There were winds to complement the strings, and the brass was heard to be more of a presence than usual with this ensemble. Tognetti sometimes conducted while playing the violin, and at other times used his bow as a baton. Both methods worked given the deep understanding between the director and orchestra, with the dynamics and occasional syncopation adding diversity and interest.
The transition to the other Mozart work, his Sinfonia Concertante In E-Flat Major was almost a segue as violist Christopher Moore subtly positioned himself for his dialogue with Tognetti, this being the central feature of this work. After a beautifully managed crescendo the violin and viola played as one, the effect being smooth and mellow. It was lovely to hear the viola (tuned to E flat) as a worthy partner to the violin, never better then in their shared cadenza at the end of a long first movement. (It should be noted that the ACO’s practice of elevating its members to soloist roles works well, with no shortage of worthy players).
In the Andante, with a rhythm that recalled Mozart’s requiem, Tognetti’s violin (a 1743 Guarneri) was plangent, echoed by the 1610 Maggini viola Moore plays, and grounded by its deeper tone. The soloists had a nice synchronicity, only at very occasional moments seeming a little tentative. As for the wider ensemble, the unity of purpose of the ACO is one of its most notable characteristics, shown as it kept meticulous time when Tognetti was too preoccupied to give his full attention to conducting. Another cadenza impressed with its timing, particularly given the number of trills for the soloists. A Presto worthy of the name saw Moore leading the orchestra into a movement of quintessential Mozart sound, the all important phrasing led by the soloists’ examples. If softer reiterations occasionally lost some sparkle, the brightness was recaptured to bring the work to a lively conclusion … with some humour!
After interval a came the major work of the night after which the concert itself was named. Brahms 3 or, more accurately, Brahms’ Symphony No.3 in F Major. The strong horn section gave power to the huge sound that opened the work, quite atypical of the ACO’s repertoire but welcome nevertheless. A lovely, lilting subject followed with the winds adding interest to the development. The brass brought the sound to a newly powerful level, reminiscent of Beethoven.
It was an achievement for Tognetti to conduct this work while also playing, occasionally dashing to the rostrum to keep control but mostly from a raised platform in the first violin section. More great declamatory subjects followed and a swell of orchestral sound that faded as quickly as it came.
The Andante with a quiet flowing melody was led by winds and horns with the strings silent for time until a quiet hymn-like subject led by Tognetti showed the strength and sweetness of this major section of the orchestra. In the next movement, poco allegro, there was integration of strings the winds were the soloists for a time as strings filled in the rhythm and harmony through to the delicate final chords.
The final Allegro had an almost ominous beginning but was still flowing, with a sense of anticipation. The trombone notes were sombre then led to an outburst of strong sound and drama. A series of long fortissimo accented notes heralded a dramatic turn in development. The orchestra was very responsive to these changing dynamics and although the ending was surprisingly quiet, the impression left was one of big satisfying sound.