The first disappointment of this evening was delivered via email in the hours leading up to the performance. Star soloist Polina Leschenko was “experiencing medical issues” and may not be able perform one of the headline works of the night – Chopin’s second piano concerto.
Unfortunately, this came to pass and it was announced that the program would be altered, with a replacement offering of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ majestic The Lark Ascending, performed by the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s artistic director Richard Tognetti.
Leschenko was still in a position to take to the stage in Mendelssohn’s Double Concerto for Violin, Piano and Strings, which was to now open the program. Leschenko has been a favourite collaborator of the ACO for many years. She is a pianist with an exciting blend of Russian virtuosity and great poetry. It would have been a treat to hear her play Chopin.
This first disappointment was supplemented by a reading of the Mendelssohn concerto that was eccentric at best. Tognetti queued his musicians at a tempo that was designed for maximum excitement but was overly ambitious. Both soloists had issues navigating the virtuosic lines within such a context, meaning they either suffered in finesse or would simply play a phrase at an entirely new tempo. The second subject of the first movement was so much slower that someone who didn’t know the piece could have been forgiven for assuming the slow movement had begun.
Whatever medical concerns Ms Leschenko is dealing with didn’t prevent her from appearing like she was enjoying herself on stage and there were moments of the spectacular pianism we have seen from her previously throughout the performance.
Tognetti’s desire to be fresh and daring in every performance is commendable, but on this occasion and in the opinion of this reviewer the result was simply an unrefined and stylistically questionable hodge-podge of technical missteps and interpretative question marks.
For a late swap, the Lark fared better with some rich accompaniment from the orchestra and some particularly memorable solos from Helena Rathbone, who was leading the band.
The highlight of the evening was an energetic performance of Fanny Mendelssohn’s E-flat quartet, which is a piece that thoroughly deserves a place in the canon. There was much to commend in the idea of arranging it for full string orchestra; the lush romantic textures of the slower movements, enhanced by that full body of sound and the addition of bass, was a positive. It presents serious challenges, however. There is some fiendish writing, particularly in the first violin part, and, principally due to the once again daring tempi, ensemble suffered.
This was not the ACO at their unforgettable finest, and perhaps with all of the late changes and complications that is unsurprising.
Photo credit: Nic Walker
Stewart Kelly reviewed “Chopin & the Mendelssohns”, performed by the Australian Chamber Orchestra at Arts Centre Melbourne, Hamer Hall, on November 20, 2023.