The name of Richard Tognetti is identified with the Australian Chamber Orchestra, but this week Heather Leviston reviewed a recital by Tognetti without the ACO – and a concert in which the orchestra was directed by a guest conductor. Each performance had its own strengths.
Any recital from Richard Tognetti is bound to arouse interest. Not only does he play a magnificent Guarneri del Gesu violin, heard to great advantage in the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall, but his virtuosity and artistry are always linked to an imaginative approach to programming and interpretation. In British pianist Steven Osborne he could not have had a more skilled and sympathetic partner.
Without any ado, Tognetti strode onto the stage and immediately launched into a program of popular works by Prokofiev, Debussy and Beethoven with one of Arvo Part’s best known works, Fratres. In this version for violin and piano it made for a compelling introduction. After a short quasi-improvised solo violin passage the piano made an entry with soft chords against a crystalline sliver of high harmonic breath. The work moved from flights of lyricism to distressed wailings and ultimately to quiet contemplation. Essentially a hymn played over a drone, the textured variations became an arresting hypnotic meditation.
The first, third and fifth of Prokofiev’s Five Melodies and his Violin Sonata No. 2 in D major (originally written for flute) followed. Diverse in mood and demanding an array of technical effects, they are all intensely melodic. The fact that the first two “Melodies” selected for this program were originally written as vocalises for his friend, the soprano Nina Koshetz, was plain to hear. Song-like and heartfelt, Tognetti and Osborne demonstrated just why these works have remained firm favourites.
The second half of the program began with another masterpiece of early twentieth century works for violin and piano: Debussy’s Violin Sonata in G minor. It was his final completed work as he died from cancer within less than a year of its premiere in 1917. Despite the circumstances of its composition, it is a work imbued with grace and energy, expertly realised by Tognetti and Osborne.
Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No.10 in G major (his final sonata) may have been a step back in time, but certainly matched what had gone before in terms of melodic riches. Again, technical assurance and a striking capacity to shape and colour a phrase made for a highly persuasive performance of a work that depends on a sympathetic musical partnership of equal voices.
Ironically enough, the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s offering later in the week moved from the intimacy of the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall to the comparatively cavernous space of Hamer Hall for their Melbourne performances of “Intimate Letters”.
Instead of Richard Tognetti at the helm, Gordan Nikolic made a welcome first appearance with ACO as Guest Director and Violin. Such is the international stature of ACO (and possibly the persuasive powers of Richard Tognetti) that even a distinguished soloist and Leader of the London Symphony Orchestra and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe can be induced to lead this band of gifted string players.
An additional inducement would have been Timo-Veikko Valve’s fascinating concept for this program. As ACO’s Principal Cello, he investigated the project that he and Tognetti felt had considerable potential, workshopping arrangements of the quartets with two orchestras in his native Finland. In collaboration with Bell Shakespeare and under the theatrical direction of Peter Evans, seventeen strings and two actors presented Mozart’s Divertimento in F major, Smetana’s String Quartet No. 1 and Janacek’s String Quartet No. 2, “Intimate Letters”.
The musicians assembled on the stage, the lights were lowered and Ella Scott Lynch entered reading a letter from her sixteen-year-old brother, Wolfgang. Full of playful teasing, it set the tone for a charming “Divertimento”. With warm, shining string tone and just the right balance so that moving parts were given due prominence, it seemed that many of the players were so familiar with the music that they hardly needed to look at the score, preferring to connect more fully with each other and direct attention to the interplay between the voices.
A more anguished note was heard in the work that followed. Reading from Smetana’s letters, Marshall Napier introduced “the course of my life in sound”. At the age of fifty, Smetana was diagnosed with profound permanent deafness. The first three movements of this quartet depict happier moments in his life, but the Finale marks the onset of deafness and the curse of a high pitched ringing in his ears that made composition so incredibly taxing for him.
The readings that interleaved the movements of the quartet outlined Smetana’s feelings of responsibility to establish the reputation of Czechs as creative artists, not simply renowned performers. Although Timo-Veikko Valve’s arrangement makes frequent use of the full complement of strings, much is left to solo strings. Beginning with solo viola, viola, cello and violin solos abound, all embodying the character and spirit of the musical intention, including “the shrill E in the Finale which must be played fortissimo”. The quiet, meditative ending suggested ultimate resignation.
The eponymous work by Janacek involved letters between the composer and his beloved, Kamila Stosslova. Obviously happily married, but flattered by the successful admirer’s attentions, the relationship remained unconsummated but passionate, at least on Janacek’s part. As the music played, the two actors sat on opposite sides of the stage locked in each other’s gaze. Janacek wrote, “You stand behind every note.” Who would not be flattered to think herself the inspiration for such impassioned music? Kamila Stosslova was a very effective muse indeed.
Again, readings from their letters were interpolated between the movements, heightening the significance and tension of the music. Lyrical yearnings, pulsing violas and orgasmic conclusions were an inevitable outcome. The actors exited hand in hand at the end of this third movement. The very last quiet viola notes of the final movement, however, contained an element of the unresolved.
Whatever reservations there might be regarding arrangements of quartets for larger forces, there is no doubt that ACO’s highly polished performance constituted a compelling argument in support of this practice. Wonderfully accomplished and disciplined playing, insightful instrumentation and a context of illuminating readings resulted in a quite revelatory insight into the lives and musical imaginations of two ground-breaking Czech composers.
TOGNETTI IN RECTAL
Melbourne Recital Centre
August 25, 2014
AUSTRALIAN CHAMBER ORCHESTRA: INTIMATE LETTERS
August 31, 2014