Following their foray into the Romantic reaches of symphonic repertoire with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Brahms’ Symphonies One and Four, the Australian Chamber Orchestra fully justified this expansion with a persuasive reading of Sibelius’ Symphony No.6 and Mahler’s Symphony No.4.
Preceding the advertised program came an introduction to the newest addition to the ACO’s family of instruments. For its performance debut Rebecca Chan proudly put her newly acquired 1714 Guarneri violin through its paces in a charming Opus 69 Serenade by Sibelius. Against a sparse background of four other stringed instruments, its sweet, refined upper notes and warm, velvety middle and lower notes were heard to advantage. The soulful melody over sustained chords in the second slow section was particularly lovely.
The two symphonies on display share the characteristics of being among the shortest in the symphonic output of Sibelius and Mahler as well as being comparatively modest in terms of orchestration. Both are also rich in musical variety and interest.
Constantly shifting orchestral colour and emotional expression is a notable characteristic of the Sibelius symphony. From the outset the full, integrated tone of the violins and violas established what was to be a unified sound and sense of purpose from all sections of the orchestra. A secure quartet of horns and pure flutes added to the required clarity in what Sibelius referred to as his “spring water” style of composition. Following the third short “hunt” movement, which galloped to an exciting climax, the final Allegro molto began with a recitative conversation between the winds and lower strings, with the timpani making emphatic comments. This musical sparring was impressively forceful and led to a series of wild climaxes, which seemed to have little of a chamber quality about it. The ACO can certainly punch above its weight when called upon to do so. An array of mood swings finally led to a beautifully intimate exchange between violas, woodwinds and timpani. Richard Tognetti, wizard-like, seemed to conjure up the music with his hands, attentive to every precise detail.
For the scherzo movement of the Mahler 4, Tognetti had the extra demand of playing a second solo violin, tuned a tone higher, which usually sits on a bench beside the concertmaster. From the rhythmically elastic opening of the first movement, with its graceful Viennese lilt, the high level of communication between the players was clear. In addition to their responsiveness to a conductor the front desk strings of the ACO are accustomed to leading a musical phrase and can be depended upon to do so. When the time came, Tognetti picked up the violin from its stand, used the bow as a baton when not playing with it, and finally replaced them; the transition could not have been smoother.
The third movement adagio, beginning with the kind of sublime melody that makes Mahler’s music so deeply emotional, was played with just the right amount of weight and transparency of tone. Against a background of plucked double basses, string sections were added in an exquisite layering of melodic parts. The whole movement was full of gorgeous contributions from solo violin, viola and woodwinds.
A significant point of interest in Mahler’s symphonies is his use of singers. As the third movement flowed into the final movement, American soprano Kiera Duffy walked onto the stage. The persona of a child is called for in this excerpt from Das Knaben Wunderhorn (Youth’s Magic Horn) and Tognetti had once again found a highly suitable interpreter. Considering the presence of Dawn Upshaw in a concert earlier this year and Lucy Crowe in ACO’s acclaimed Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, it would seem that he has quite a talent for attracting gifted sopranos.
With her slender form, radiant animation and vibrant high notes Kiera Duffy gave a most convincing portrayal of child-like wonder. The repeated descending phrase of “the angels, they bake the bread” was admirably sustained and made an exciting contrast with the strident outbursts of the sleigh-bell theme. Although it was sometimes difficult to hear her middle and lower notes in such a large venue, the final pianissimo from voice and orchestra captured the essence of the final words. “The angelic voices” did indeed “lift our spirits and all things awaken to joy!”. It was a magical ending.
Bigger may not always be better, but the consistently excellent standard of playing and judicious choice of repertoire have vindicated the decision of ACO to venture into this new territory. Combining a wide variety of musical expression with outstanding soloists continues to make this virtuoso orchestra a key contributor to the artistic fabric of Australian culture.
Heather Leviston reviewed the ACO peformance at Hamer Hall on June 22.
The picture is of soprano Kiera Duffy.