I could say a great deal about the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s technical skill, far more than I have space for in this review. But that would be missing the point: all that technical mastery only matters because of the emotional impact that it enables. By the end of last night’s concert at Milton Court, I was a quivering wreck, having been put through the emotional wringer.

Richard Tognetti, Nathan Braude and the ACO in Mozart's <i>Sinfonia Concertante</i> © Mark Allan | Barbican
Richard Tognetti, Nathan Braude and the ACO in Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante
© Mark Allan | Barbican

The concert had not started emotionally, though: Roger Smalley’s Strung Out was something of a compositional exercise, exploring what happens if you “string out” 13 musicians in a straight line across the stage: a double bass in the middle with the remaining musicians positioned symmetrically on each side, going up in order of pitch. The work served as a light touch way to get us used to the ACO’s aural palette.

There are many attributes that you hope for from a Mozart performance: verve, sprightly elegance, poise, balance, dynamic range. It’s rare to get all of these in one work at one time, but that’s exactly what we had in the Sinfonia Concertante, K364. Leading from the violin, Richard Tognetti prowled around the space in the middle of the musicians, using his bow as a conductor’s baton when not playing; violist Nathan Braude proved a worthy sparring partner, notable in that the viola’s sound cut through the midrange wash just as much as Tognetti’s clear tone. There were rapturous cadenzas in both first and second movements; the second movement was urgent without being frantic, powered by the shaping of the cello phrases that underpin it. Pairs of horns and oboes blended harmoniously into the strings. The finale was executed with lightness and grace.

The Australian Chamber Orchestra in <i>Strung Out</i> © Mark Allan | Barbican
The Australian Chamber Orchestra in Strung Out
© Mark Allan | Barbican

If you think all 21st-century music is harsh and over-intellectual, the perfect antidote is Pēteris Vasks’ fantasy Vox amoris – as the name implies, it’s an exploration of love. It’s also an exploration of string technique: the dynamic range tests the players to their limits. The pianissimo tremolando opening starts from next to nothing, from which a single pizzicato cello note introduces an exquisite violin solo, suffused with yearning and nostalgia. The way the pianissimo backing swells into full flood is utterly bewitching. Solo passages employ double and triple stops in the lower strings of the violin reminiscent of Bach’s solo works; the outburst of energy is followed by ensemble darkness, after which the music roams through all of love’s trials and tribulations.

The concert closed with an arrangement for string orchestra of Shostakovich’s Eighth String Quartet by his friend and collaborator Rudolf Barshai, published as the Chamber Symphony in C minor, Op.110a. The quartet was written in Dresden during a project to write film music about the city’s destruction in World War II; it bears a stark testament to the composer’s depressed, troubled state of mind. Not for nothing does this work appear on compilation albums with titles like “The Dark Side of Classical Music”.

The mood swings are extreme: the softest, most evanescent Largo is followed by a violent Presto; passages follow in which you are assaulted by pounding rhythms; the start of the third movement Allegretto is Shostakovich at his most manic, a waltz with the devil on the very edge of sanity; an exquisite, long-breathed cello solo breathes calm into you, to be interrupted by another tumult of three chord riffs – yet for all the violence, the fundamental mood is one of the deepest melancholy. At the close, all that violence returns to a very sad rendition of the DSCH motif that opens the work, ending on an extraordinary diminuendo, the high strings dying to a whisper but with perfectly even sustain. You could have heard a pin drop.

There are so many things that make the ACO’s performance special. For a start, they don’t sound like an orchestra: they’re so tightly together that you feel like you’re listening to a mysteriously expanded string quartet. We’re used to the idea of a star violinist breathing life into a phrase by giving it a shaped contour in both dynamics in rubato, but it’s an extraordinary thing to hear four violinists playing that complex shaping identically. These are risk-taking musicians, throwing themselves into those sforzandi to the point where one bow went flying. Their dynamic range is extreme, with pianissimi held more steadily and softly than I have ever heard.

We didn’t get an encore. We didn’t want an encore. We had had every ounce of emotion squeezed out of us.