A feast of Russian chamber music was what was on offer for the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s latest concert. Featuring music by Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky in a program entitled Russian Visions, the ACO with guest soloists Steven Osborne and David Elton provided an evening of music which was visionary, electrifying and intense in equal measures. The ACO’s programs are always carefully constructed and innovative, and tonight’s was no exception, beginning with an extremely effective reworking of Prokofiev’s Visions Fugitives. This version combined Prokofiev’s original piano version with Rudolf Barshai’s arrangement for strings. The piano, played by British pianist Steven Osborne, blended beautifully with the string playing, so much so that at times it was difficult to discern that it was playing, as it added to a lush, overall homogenous sound. Steven Osborne was outstanding, capturing perfectly the different moods which characterize these miniature masterpieces. The ACO played with their usual sensitivity, directed expertly by Richard Tognetti from the lead violin, with all the violinists and viola players, as is their trademark, standing up. This no doubt aided their faultless sense of communication and ensemble.

Australian Chamber Orchestra  ©  Jon Frank
Australian Chamber Orchestra
© Jon Frank

The next work in the program, Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto no. 1 in C minor, followed on without a break, the entrance of the solo trumpet heralding the start of the new work. The solo trumpeter was David Elton, recently appointed principal trumpet of Sydney Symphony. His playing was crystal clear, meticulously articulated, especially in the fanfare passages in the final movement. Particularly beautiful was his performance of the slow movement. The excellent program notes describe the trumpet’s conclusion to this movement as “a not-so-triumphant bugler, lame from a bloody battle”. Elton’s interpretation of this was one of heartfelt lyricism and impeccable control.

For his part, Osborne handled the fiendish piano part of this concerto with great bravura. It is striking how he is very much a complete pianist, possessing both the virtuosic power required for the final movement and the extraordinary delicacy needed for the slow movement. Both extremes of his technique were impressive in equal measure. The orchestra accompanied the soloists with real style, capturing the essence of the dichotomy present in so much of Shostakovich’s music: the contrast between the intensely serene but brooding melodies, and the mock-triumphant sections. No wonder then that the audience erupted into loud cheers at the concerto’s conclusion, before Osborne finished off the first half with a serene rendition of Rachmaninov’s Prelude in G major, adding another Russian composer to the evening’s proceedings.

The second half of the concert was equally enthralling, the ACO opening it with Shostakovich’s Two Pieces for String Octet, Op. 11. These two pieces, a prelude and a scherzo, were completely contrasting, the former being eerie and slightly restless in character, and the latter dramatic and jagged at the edges. The prelude exemplifies the sense of despair present in so much of the composer’s music, the eight musicians on stage capturing this sound world in a moving rendition. The scherzo, once described by Shostakovich as “the very best thing I have written”, was performed with passion by the players; the sharp dissonances and Shostakovich’s modernist approach were brought to the fore.

After this, the rest of the ACO musicians returned to the stage for the final piece in the program, Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence. Tchaikovsky’s string sextet version was his last piece of chamber music; however, it was performed tonight in an arrangement for full string orchestra, which added to the richness inherent in the music, enabling us to indulge in the gorgeous, full, lush sound of the ACO. Tchaikovsky knew Florence well and this tribute to the great Tuscan city is a wonderful celebration, full of lyricism and ecstatic vigour.

This orchestra is one which always seems to be enjoying itself. There is always a feeling that they are delighting in sharing the music with their fellow players, which transmits as if by osmosis to the audience. Particularly impressive was the principal viola player, Christopher Moore. The Tchaikovsky contains a significant viola part and this performance was a great showcase for an often underrated instrument. Christopher made the instrument sing with a wonderful mellow tone, unique to the viola. The dynamics in Tchaikovsky’s score are wide-ranging, from ppp to ffff. During the quietest sections of the performance, such as the central, mysterious passage in the Adagio, it would have been possible to hear a pin drop in the concert hall, such was the electrifying nature of the playing. The work ends with the loudest music in the work and is full of joie de vivre. It was fitting to be bathed in the luxurious uniqueness which is the full ACO string sound as the evening drew to a glorious close.

ACO – Russian VisionsOliver Brett reviews the Australian Chamber Orchestra and Steven Osborne in a program of Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky.4