Even with Bach on the menu, there’s always something slightly less ordinary about Richard Tognetti’s programming. As he rapidly approaches his 30th year as Artistic Director of the hugely impressive Australian Chamber Orchestra (ACO), Tognetti presented not straight Bach, but two sympathetic arrangements, mixing it with some enigmatic Stravinsky and evocative Thomas Adès to show that music spanning 270 years can actually be surprisingly complementary. And as if to accentuate this point, Tognetti and the ACO played the three works making up the first half without a break.

Richard Tognetti and the Australian Chamber Orchestra
© Mark Allan | Barbican

Kicking off in true unconventional style, Tognetti presented a string ensemble version of Stravinsky’s 1914 Three Pieces for String Quartet, which lost nothing in its translation largely because of the crisp, raw playing of the ACO. These highly accomplished players gave Stravinsky’s lean, sinewy textures a steely veneer, with rough exclamations obnoxiously blurted out to provide a suitably auspicious opening to the programme. Stravinsky’s more concise style was in complete contrast to the extroversion and colour of the three ballets written for Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes in the preceding years, as Tognetti created an impressive contrast between the first two pieces, quirky and idiosyncratic, and the liturgical, other-worldly feel of the third, with its solemn harmonies and textures echoing The Rite of Spring of a year earlier.

With the briefest of pauses, the ACO segued neatly into Thomas Adès’ string orchestra arrangement of “Nightfalls”, the first movement of his 2010 Four Quarters for string quartet. Tognetti carefully engineered the shifting pulses of the piece across the different sections of the orchestra, building up the tensions and layers of sound from within, rising and then dying away. The overall feel was one of mystery, but with constant movement in time and space. The ACO showed great synchronicity and variety of timbre as they followed each turn in the flow of the music, ending with a diffuse wisp hanging in mid-air.

The gentle introduction of a piano, silent until now, heralded the beginning of Tognetti’s own arrangement of Bach’s Canons on a Goldberg Ground. This previously unknown set of 14 canons was discovered in 1974 as an appendix to Bach’s personal copy of the Goldberg Variations, and, as was common in those days, were basic canons with no instrumentation, allowing the performers to apply their own interpretations and arrangements. Tognetti, therefore, did exactly that, providing a fascinating and sympathetic arrangement but with a contemporary feel. The ACO played with relish and sensitivity, exploring the many different textures and moods with dynamic flair and producing a rather well-rounded end to this absorbing first half.

In the band’s own words, Bach holds a special place for every ACO musician. So out came Tognetti’s Baroque bow for the second half as the ACO, playing with a genuine sense of adventure and discovery and with natural technical finesse, provided a captivating performance of the 1997 arrangement of Bach’s iconic Goldberg Variations by Canadian conductor and Baroque specialist, Bernard Labadie. Complete with harpsichord (Erin Helyard) and theorbo (Axel Wolf), Tognetti’s playing was vigorous and nuanced, with an appropriately clean and transparent tone. But more importantly, he gave all players equal voices, bringing phrases to the surface with a rise and fall and emphasising the different combinations of instruments. Particularly striking were the violin-viola pairings, the sombre intensity created in the minor key variations, the elements of swing and even some percussive tapping on the bodies of the instruments. All this variety was played with 21st-century style and panache by Tognetti and the ACO, but at its heart this remained pure Bach.