If there was an Italian equivalent to the French joie de vivre surely it would find embodiment in Giovanni Sollima whose playing last Monday night electrified the crowd at Hamer Hall. In the absence of the Australian Chamber Orchestra Director Richard Tognetti, the visiting Italian dynamo pulled the willing troupe from ACO into his orbit with a highly charged performance. Already known for its refinement and creative programming, the ACO seemed bathed in the golden energy of Sollima, a star of the modern cello world.
Opening the concert was Monteverdi’s Lamento della ninfa, no doubt in celebration of the 450th anniversary of the Renaissance composer’s birth. Guest harpsichordist Donald Nicolson and theorbist Tommie Andersson were stabilising elements whilst violinist Satu Vanska’s leadership drew out the sense of the original Motet text, “On her pale face, Grief could be seen, Often from her heart, A deep sigh was drawn.” Notwithstanding some wobbly violin vibrato, the interpretation was firmly steeped in the melancholy of the era.
Indulging in a penchant for attacca connections between works an altered version of Luciano Berio’s Sequenzas followed without applause, (much as the audience wanted to clap). We were treated to a take-your-turn comingled version of Sequenzas VIII for solo violin and XIVb for bass (an arrangement of the cello original). The dialogue effect was convincingly wrought as the ACO rewrote two works into one. Perhaps a coherent explanation could have been given in the program notes, although there is some information on an ACO blog. In particular, Bibeau’s handling of extended techniques was impressive with an easy physical presence and impressive left hand pizzicato.
Leonardo Leo’s Concerto in D minor brought the cosmopolitan splendour of 18th century Naples to the stage, and with it the impish, daring presence of Guest director and cellist Giovanni Sollima. Also a composer and improviser, Sollima was at the height of his powers, squeezing every drop of personality out of this late-Baroque gem. Never mind historically informed performance, Sollima’s voice is his own. It was exquisite playing with a free spirit that had him literally dancing at the cello accompanied by a bow that seemed more like a sword wielded by a fencing master.
A small break from Sollima’s magnetism came in the form of violinist Satu Vanska’s Stradivarius in Paganini’s “Moses” Variations (based on a theme from Rossini’s opera Moses in Egypt). She holds her own technically with Nordic intensity and consummate phrasing. After interval came another Rossini work for cello and orchestra, Une Larme (A Tear: Theme and variations from Sins of Old Age). In this party piece that begs debauchery, Sollima did not disappoint as his wicked style and in-jokes had members of the audience stifling giggles.
The Italianate passion continued to the end in Sollima’s own 2011 work, Fecit Neap.17 for cello, strings and continuo, an irresistible post-minimalist sound world which toys with the patterns and repetition of 18th century Italian music. Sollima emerged already playing from backstage, cello hung on a shoulder as if he were a walking minstrel. Then, whilst his own Cremonese cello balanced precariously in a hole in the floor he had his own Frank Zappa moment playing a coat hanger. Despite a not-quite-wardrobe malfunction, (or was it?) and ensuing hoo-hah, Sollima’s tongue-in-cheek approach blended with a seriously hot technique. See him next time he’s in town.