The final movement of Beethoven’s last quartet famously begins with a questioning three-note figure over which the composer wrote “Muss es sein?” (Must it be?). What he meant by this question remains enigmatic nearly two centuries later, but his answer was clear: he flipped the motif on its head, turning it into a joyfully affirmative “Es muss sein!” (It must be!). This positivity at the end of the concert acted as a counterbalance to the work which opened the programme, Prokofiev’s troubled Violin Sonata no. 1 in F minor. Both of these arrangements for string orchestra were the work of the guest director of the Australian Chamber Orchestra, Lorenza Borrani. In between the two came a new work by Bulgarian-British composer Dobrinka Tabakova.

Prokofiev’s sonata opens with unison writing for the piano in a low register. Unsurprisingly, this was given to the cellos and bass, and these forces were retained even after the point in the original where the violin enters. This dark-textured opening set the mood for the opening movement, a study in bleakness. When Borrani took on the swirling scales in the solo violin line, the rest of the orchestra provided a chordal backdrop that sounded glassy rather than fulsome. The second movement had a pleasingly abrasive energy to it, with the double bass prominent. In the more lyrical portions, the texture sounded a bit dry in comparison with the original, where even judicious pedalling creates a warmer texture. Within the third movement, there were some lovely sonorities, such as when the violas shadowed the soloist two octaves lower, and the fugitive swirling phrases were rendered well. The exposed textures rendered a few momentary imperfections more noticeable than they might otherwise have been. A brief passage of pizzicato for the solo violin in the finale was extended to the entire ensemble, creating a pleasing homogeneity of texture. The ending, which has been interpreted as Prokofiev’s commentary on the disappearance of several friends who fell foul of the Stalinist system, sounded duly subdued.

Tabakova’s Such different paths, a work which had its Australian premiere on this tour, began the second half. Although written in 2008 for the violinist Janine Jansen, the work felt more like an ensemble piece than a concerto, and an interview with the composer in the programme booklet confirmed that she viewed it as a septet. Stylistically, there were elements which suggested a kind of folk-minimalism, such as in ebullient unsynchronised patterns among the violins at the start. This cheery music gradually lost energy, and gave way to a more lyrical idea for violas and cellos. A basso ostinato (where the same bass riff is repeated multiple times with changing upper parts) dominated later sections, alternating with passages where the solo violin soared melismatically. When new works are performed next to beloved masterpieces from the past it sometimes can be a challenge to the listener to forego the familiar syntax in favour of a voyage into the unknown, but Tabakova’s septet had enough engagement with traditional elements to hold the first-time listener.

The first sound we heard in the Beethoven was a solo viola, just as in the original scoring. Borrani showed a commendable sensitivity to the dangers of overloading that come from upscaling a string quartet to a string orchestra, and her arrangement of the first movement offered many delicacies of shading. The orchestra captured the lightness and some of the humour of the Vivace second movement, with the louder outbursts properly full of sound and fury. The fuller sonorities were advantageous in the lyrical Lento assai, and the minor portion was especially heartfelt and intimate. The introductory ‘question’ in the finale was taken at a rather brisk tempo, making the contrast to the lively ‘answer’ less striking than it might have been. Here as elsewhere in the concert there were uncharacteristic but persistent hints of micro-divergences of tuning among the violins.

On the whole, for whatever combination of reasons, the orchestra lacked something of its wonted sparkle. Nor is this the first occasion in recent years when I have left an ACO concert feeling underwhelmed. My very vivid memories of the line-up of players from, say, five years ago was that they demonstrated more joy in their music-making: there was constant visual communication among the players and smiles at shared moments of musical pleasure. The group as it exists today still has the same professionalism and polish, but somewhere along the line the adventurousness and the sense of mutual excitement has fallen off. It is to be hoped that this can be recaptured, for this joie de vivre (or joie de jouer, if one prefers) was what rendered the orchestra’s performances so thrilling and won them legions of fans both here and indeed overseas.