230 years ago, Mozart spent six summer weeks writing his last three symphonies. The world has marvelled at the results ever since, but it has led to some scholarly muddle. It was once thought that they were written with no particular performance in mind, as a final summation of his symphonic art. But neither assumption reflects Mozart’s usual practice. There is evidence they were performed or programmed, since the G minor exists in two versions, with different woodwind scoring, which the composer would not have done without a particular complement of players for a specific occasion. Also writing to make some climactic statement about compositional possibilities is not a typical 18th-century attitude to the craft (pace Bach’s Art of Fugue). A final summation would also have seemed premature. Mozart lived three more years and wrote no more symphonies, but surely would have done so had a lucrative commission come his way.

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

But they make a wonderful programme, a delightful blend of unity and diversity. Nikolaus Harnoncourt believed they were intended to be played as a unity, a single twelve-movement structure. Many musicians are not persuaded (tonight’s director among them), but they follow one another rather well, opening with no. 39’s grand, slow introduction (a rarity in Mozart) and closing with a sublime summation, the fugal finale of no. 41. Certainly, both were terrific bookends in these performances by the Australian Chamber Orchestra, directed by their lead violinist, Richard Tognetti. The ten movements in between were pretty impressive too.

The ACO is a venerable cultural institution; founded in 1975, its core now a 17-piece string orchestra, and this is the first of three annual Milton Court residencies. Tognetti became Artistic Director in 1990. He directs performances from the leader’s chair – or he would, except that they play standing up. He claims that his instrument makes the best baton – at rehearsal he can better illustrate musical points. In concert, Tognetti's bow becomes an actual baton at the start and at other crucial moments. Mostly he adopts the role a concertmaster had in the 18th century, leading by his playing. Among the virtues for the audience is that it makes a fascinating spectacle, a change from the back view of a soundless conductor.

The 30 players in this concert made quite a wallop when they launched no. 39 with that E flat chord, which resonated in Milton Court to grand effect. This hall has a generous acoustic, ideal for chamber groups up to about this size, with clarity and warmth in just about ideal proportions. If it was a touch too loud at times, the musicians perhaps need greater familiarity with the space to refine their dynamics. But at least we had none of the old porcelain performance tradition, of Mozart treated as elegant and precious rather than elevated and potent. The main Allegro got an energetic reading indeed, and the ACO danced through the minuet, changing into Lederhosen for the Lӓndler trio, its drinking song derivation reflected in especially gurgling arpeggios from the chalumeau register of the second clarinet.

The choices made by Tognetti were spot on. Tempi always seemed right, and repeats were taken where they are usually heard and not where they are mostly omitted – this could be a long programme otherwise. Phrasing was always alive and spontaneous-sounding, perhaps one consequence of the freedom of playing standing up, and of players being directed by a fellow player. No. 41 was given in the revised version with clarinets, and sounded as fresh as if the ink was still wet on the players’ pages (or tablets in their case). The balance and the smart tempo for the opening slightly swallowed a favourite moment, the violas’ undulating accompaniment before the theme enters, but thereafter the movement generated all the pathos one could want. And the violas, of course, led us into the Andante and enjoyed their moment in the sun, while the finale’s ‘Mannheim rocket’ truly took off and launched a thrilling account of the finale.

Tognetti’s work was excellent throughout, whether as lord of the dance in minuets, or lord of misrule in the riotous invention in outer movements, urging his players on through codas with a wave of his bow. The “Jupiter” was made to sound just what it is – one of the greatest of all symphonies from any era, right through to its tumultuous finale, with always clearly layered fugal passages, even the coda with all five themes combined. The ACO sounded like this finale really was their party piece and there was an audience roar of an enthusiasm usually reserved for Mahler 5 rather than Mozart 41. This ACO visit includes a performance of their “Cinematic and Musical Odyssey” called Mountain. Surely they have scaled the heights enough already.