As if conducting two major symphonic works and playing two violin solos was not enough, the indefatigable Richard Tognetti fronted up for an interview with the MSO’s Director of Artistic Planning, Huw Humphreys, in the Stalls foyer of Hamer Hall following the final concert for this program. A highly articulate speaker, Tognetti’s enthusiasm for the music was informed by a deep knowledge and appreciation of its merits and demands; still radiating energy, he was keen to share his thoughts with a considerable crowd, many of whom were willing to stand in order to hear them.
The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra could not have found a more committed conductor for their debut performance of Lutoslawski’s 1968 work, Livre pour orchestra (“Book for orchestra”). With Lutoslawski considered to be a bridge between traditional and experimental music, Tognetti rates him as the greatest composer of aleatoric orchestral music of the twentieth century. Livre is divided into four “chapters” and three “interludes”, each featuring different sections of the orchestra and making sparing use of with the whole orchestra. Although groups of players are able to explore chance relationships in the aleatoric passages, most of the work is fully notated and depends on absolute precision for full effect. Tognetti conducted as though the orchestra was one mighty instrument under his control. From washes of colour to precise dramatic explosions of sound leading finally to a mood of sustained quiet contemplation, unity of purpose and fine playing made this an arresting experience.
Australian Chamber Orchestra devotees will be familiar with Tognetti’s occasional practice of playing a program without a break between items, just letting them flow from one to the other and sometimes intermingle. He would have preferred to have the ethereal ending of Livre segue into the Beethoven’s two Romances for violin and orchestra, but realized that the mechanics of setting up the chamber-sized orchestra for the latter made it impractical.
It might also have been an uncomfortable transition for some members of the audience. Nevertheless, if the Lutoslawski had been too confronting for some listeners, the sweetness and grace of the Romances in Tognetti’s hands would have smoothed any ruffled feathers. Thanks to these wonderfully lyrical pieces, Tognetti had a fair proportion of the audience teary-eyed by the end. My own reaction was to regret that they were over so soon and wish he would play an encore – a selfish impulse considering that he was about to undertake the strenuous feat of conducting Brahms’ monumental Symphony No 1.
Perhaps I should have copied the example of a lady sitting nearby and gone to an earlier performance so that I could attend a second one. In her case it was not just the Beethoven she wanted to hear again but also, she said, the best performance of the Brahms she had ever heard. There is no doubt that it was an outstanding performance. Tognetti lived every note and climbed every architectural span with such focused energy that it was totally compelling.
Whether building up the sustained tension of the first movement, driven by the timpani heartbeats, or creating waves of full-bodied drama with solid brassy orchestral might, or spinning out song-like melodies with flute and oboe or revelling in the expansive joy and humanity of the last movement, the MSO players excelled themselves as a body and as soloists. So total was Tognetti’s involvement in the music that the beautiful violin solos at the end of the second movement, played so expressively by Wilma Smith, induced the self-confessed urge to “snatch the violin out of her hands”.
The enthusiastic response of the audience at the end of this musical feast reflected similar involvement in Brahms’ powerful and complex masterpiece. In fact, there is so much complexity that, given the rehearsal time available, Tognetti admitted it would have been impossible to do it justice if most members of the orchestra had not been familiar with the symphony already. And do it justice they certainly did.