Headlined “Intimate Beethoven”, the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s concert could well have merited the description “Close Encounters of the Morbid Kind”. The rain and cool temperature outside the Elizabeth Murdoch Hall of the Melbourne Recital Centre added to the depressing mood of the works that Mozart and Beethoven composed a few years before their death. They both set out to ponder their mortality, but finished more upbeat than when they started.

The Beethoven work to which the programme title referred was his String Quartet in A minor, Op.132, the so called “Heiliger Dankgesang” on account of the lengthy description the composer gave the third movement. Before launching into it after the intermission, cellist Timo-Veikko Valve thanked the audience “for staying” and jokingly said that this was the type of work that a well established chamber group would tackle on their 20th anniversary, not a hastily formed team of players with four days to work together. Although it was a clever ploy to manage expectations, it was an overly modest and apologetic remark. Players coming together for four days simply cannot handle the complexity and intensity of the work. Players with less rapport would have lost their way in the maze of twists and turns, despite the signposts and motivic material Beethoven provides for the unintiated. In this case, the players were clearly not lost, althought that is not to say that there were no blemishes in their collaboration.

The pivotal and cathartic third movement of the work, the “Heiliger Dankgesang”, is one of sharp contrasts between dark despair and hopeful joy. Perhaps being self-conscious of the heavy burden on their shoulders, the players were overly cautious and sounded neither anguished enough in the slow sections; nor jaunty enough in the fast sections, under-powering Beethoven’s description of “feeling renewed strength”. The voices maintained good balance and adequate rhythmic tension, particularly Helena Rathbone and Liisa Pallandi on violins; and viola and cello each exerted their strength when needed, although I couldn’t help sensing the latter chomping at the bit. In the third chorale section, marked “with deeply felt expression” (Mit innigster Emfindung), they deftly avoided tripping over each other as the thematic material became more intricately intertwined.

The outer movements bookending the “Heiliger Dankgesang” are less challenging, although not without their own traps for the careless. After the brooding four-note cello anchor opened the first movement, Rathbone’s virtuosic vigour was delightful in the ensuing cadenza-like violin interlude, with the other players joining in unbridled, almost tear-jerking lyricism. The second movement, consisting of a minuet and trio, was elegantly handled despite the rhythmic oddities, with a tinge of slightly inappropriate over-enthusiastic cheerfulness. The all-too-brief march-like fourth movement was a marvellous antithesis to the overbearing seriousness of the third. The ostensible joyfulness of the finale was not over-played, preserving a sense of inner peace and reconciliation. There were visible signs of relief on the faces of the players as they took their bows off their instruments.

Earlier in the evening, the ensemble had opened with Mozart’s String Quintet in G minor, K516, with additional participation by violist Alexandru-Mihai Bota. The sense of hesistant forward and backward motion of the first movement, underpinned at times by a chugging rhythm in the lower register, notably from violist Nicole Divall, was quite unsettling in its longing for resolution. Although this was captured in well coordinated execution, the rather rushed beginning dampened the anxiety somewhat. Much as we expected Rathbone, “primus inter pares” as it were, to carry a lot of the melodic weight, I was surprised at how timid Pallandi sounded until the third movement. The violas, as expected, projected well-developed and self-assured personalities that provided much stability.

The jarring harmony and offbeat accents in the minuet and trio second movement extended the discomfort in the first. The Adagio ma non troppo third movement, which Tchaikovsky once eulogised as exquisite interpretation of “resigned and inconsolable sorrow”, was indeed brimming with pathos. The muted strings made the underlying sobbing even more palpable. The pulsating pace of the finale was deceptive in its veneer of bliss, much as recycled material from the first movement, richer in expression and less unsettled now, delivered some relief in conclusion.

Notwithstading Valve’s remarks about the ad hoc nature of the ensemble, the temperament and tone of the group were better suited to the subtle melancholy of Mozart than the tempestuous deliverance of Beethoven. Nevertheless, groups of players longer and more steadily established would envy such impressive artistic results.