It takes artistic invention and considerable courage to design a concert programme solely around tragic topics; yet the connecting link between the various items on the last subscription concert by the Australian Chamber Orchestra was – directly or indirectly – death and great composers’ reaction to it.

Alina Ibragimova © Eva Vermandel
Alina Ibragimova
© Eva Vermandel

The key of C minor invariably carries sombre overtones in the works of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The ACO’s performance of the Adagio and Fugue in C minor, K456 opened the work with the powerful, low C on the cellos and double bass and the subsequent sinister dotted rhythms invoking Baroque models. Dissonances were explored, the orchestra’s sparingly used vibrato complemented the consistently (and appropriately) used open strings and dark hues prevailed in both the Adagio and the harsh, unrelenting voices of the macabre Fugue. It was hard to imagine that the same composer for the same instrumentation wrote the charming melodies of Eine kleine Nachtmusik only in the previous year.

The significance of the title, Concerto funebre, for violin and strings by Karl Amadeus Hartmann, would have been obvious to listeners of the first performance in 1939, less than a year after Germany’s occupation of Czechoslovakia, as the solo violin’s first melody paraphrases the well-known Hussite choral Ktož jsú boží bojovníci a zákona jeho… The inwardness and the inherent mourning of this work was outstandingly well captured in Alina Ibragimova’s performance; she was not only soloist but also artistic director for the concert. In this interpretation, her supreme music-making flowed with the natural simplicity of a spool unravelling. When she ascended into high positions playing the tenderest possible pianissimo, the ensemble still managed to surround her with the accompaniment, as if shadowing a shadow. The cohesion between the four movements was just as obvious as the constant attention between soloist and orchestra.

In Arvo Pärt’s Silouan’s Song, death was less obviously represented, although the recurring silences between phrases and the subtitle of the work, taken from Psalm 42:1 “My soul yearns after the Lord…” certainly makes the association valid.

There was a stark contrast between the two string quartet transcriptions bookending the program. Beginning the concert with the Adagio for strings by Samuel Barber was perhaps not the best decision. This composition became associated with death and funerals after repeatedly being chosen for public mourning, as it was played at the funeral of Albert Einstein, Princess Grace of Monaco and, perhaps most memorably, President Kennedy. Still today, for many people, the Adagio carries a powerful emotional burden and it seemed that neither the players nor the still fidgeting audience was prepared for such a change from the reality of a rainy afternoon into the magic of the afterlife.

Also, as originally intended, as part of Barber’s String Quartet Op.11, this movement works well. On the other end of the instrumental spectrum, memorable performances with huge string ensembles under Stokowski, Bernstein et al made us also accustomed to a less intimate but more sombre sonority. However, this performance with a 17-piece chamber orchestra brought out even the tiniest discrepancies of position changes, vibratos and string crossings – a problem not experienced later in the concert.

As all ACO fans know too well, the Artistic Director of the orchestra, Richard Tognetti regularly arranges major string quartets for the Chamber Orchestra. While he was sitting in the audience, his work was still represented on stage in the transcription of String Quartet in D minor, D.810 “Death and the Maiden” by Franz Schubert. Of all his transcriptions that I heard, this is by far the most convincing due to his mature treatment of sonorities, his distinctive use of the double bass (not part of a string quartet) and his occasional reduction of the orchestral structure to solo strings.

Ibragimova’s leading and the orchestra’s committed preparation resulted in a truly memorable performance. No detail was overlooked and every artistic solution had a musical reason in the first movement, from the brutally harsh rhythmic unison at the beginning through the effectively, yet liberally used pauses at crucial points of the movement, all the way to the frightening più mosso section in the coda. Every variation in the slow movement presented a different atmosphere, nothing as heartbreakingly beautiful as Ibragimova’s delicate whispers of the first variation, duly followed and accompanied by her colleagues. The wild sonic orgy of the Scherzo could never be matched in the original instrumentation but this transcription convinced me about its validity. Even the virtuosic last movement was performed with a feeling of spontaneity and flawless ensemble as it approached the inevitable climactic Prestissimo.

There may be other great interpretations of this quartet played by a string orchestra; with the memory of this performance though, I won’t desire to hear others for a long time.