A Varied Programme from the Australian Chamber Orchestra

18/03/2017

Smalley, Mozart, Vasks, Shostakovich: Australian Chamber Orchestra / Richard Tognetti (soloist/director) Nathan Braude (viola) Milton Court Concert Hall, London. 13.3.2017. (LB)

Roger Smalley Strung Out for 13 solo strings (1987-8)

Mozart – Sinfonia concertante in E flat major, K.364 (1779-80)

Pēteris Vasks – Vox amoris: Fantasy for violin and strings (2008-9)

Shostakovich, arr. Rudolf Barshai – Chamber Symphony, Op.110a (1960)

The Australian Chamber Orchestra is a regular and welcome visitor to London, and this evening’s concert was the second in a series of three that the orchestra is giving during the second part of Richard Tognetti’s tenure as ‘Milton Court Artist in Residence’.

Tognetti conducted Roger Smalley’s Strung Out for 13 solo strings that opened their programme. This is a successful piece of musical theatre, in which thirteen string players are literally strung out across the stage, in a straight line, with one cello, two violas and three violins standing on either side of the centrally placed double bass. Tognetti maintained an admirable level of technical and musical cohesion, with the players responding to his direction, fastidiously and enthusiastically.

Once his duties as a conductor had been fulfilled, Tognetti resumed his traditional position centre-stage, as soloist and director, in a quirky performance of Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante for violin and viola. The orchestra employed the antiphonal violins layout, with the cellos and double bass on raised podiums alongside the first violins, the violas alongside the second violins, and the pair of oboes and horns at the flanks. Whether this layout enhanced ensemble and balance is a moot point, but that the Australian Chamber performs with vigour and commitment is undisputable; this evening that vigour at times bordered on the strident.

Notions of idiomatic and beautiful Mozart may to an extent be subjective, but stylistic success is almost invariably achieved within certain parameters, and embodies certain fundamental principles. Mozart does not provide a natural home for portamento or up-bow staccatos, and in the pursuit of excitement, or perhaps in the heat of the moment, this evening’s performance of Mozart’s delightful Sinfonia Concertante made some sacrifices. There remained much to enjoy however, with viola soloist Nathan Braude also in fine form. Alert to Tognetti’s every twist and turn, he forged an eloquent and tidy path through Mozart’s Concertante, with great beauty of tone.

After the interval we were treated to an especially affectionate performance of Vox amoris: Fantasy for violin and strings, by the Latvian double bass player and composer, Pēteris Vasks. It was composed for Richard Tognetti and the Australian Chamber Orchestra during 2008/9 and in his own programme note the composer tells us that Vox amoris “….is about the greatest power in the whole world – love. Love is, was, and will be present for as long as humanity exists.” Tognetti and the orchestra performed it as if they had written it themselves, with a level of musical, intellectual and spiritual engagement that is indispensable to meaningful success in live performance.

The final piece on the programme, Rudolf Barshai’s arrangement of Shostakovich’s eighth string quartet, was given a passionate if idiosyncratic reading that sometimes deviated from both Shostakovich and Barshai’s intentions. To me at least, there seemed to be no discernible tempo relationship between the first and second movement, with the latter played far too fast for it to retain any real sense of anguish. Rudolf Barshai’s arrangement is also clear about when the double bass is to play or not, and indeed also when solo instruments are preferred over the tutti section.

The orchestra’s performances of the Smalley and Vasks were for me the most persuasive, and although the audience seemed intent on extracting an encore from their Australian visitors, it would have been difficult to follow sentiments as poignant as those embodied within Shostakovich’s ‘Chamber Symphony’.

Leon Bosch

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