The Australian Chamber Orchestra, known both for its innovative programming and for the tightness of the ensemble playing, displayed both qualities on Saturday night, the second stop in a five-city, nine-concert tour. In the first half, two works by contemporary Australian composers were sandwiched between pieces by Mozart, while the second half was given over to Schubert’s Death and the Maiden (both song and quartet in adaptations for string orchestra). In the booklet, the program was described as ‘a melding of auspicious, memorializing, and mournfully prescient, yet poignant themes’ (Alan J. Benson). More simply, the works by Carl Vine and Richard Meale provided a thoughtful and elegiac contrast to two of Mozart’s most untroubled early works. A similar emotional polarity is present in Schubert’s song: although feared by the maiden, death is presented as a welcome arrival.

Danielle de Niese © Decca / Chris Dunlop
Danielle de Niese
© Decca / Chris Dunlop

The tour marks the homecoming of Danielle de Niese, an Australian-born soprano who has lived in the US since the age of ten. With four discs of 18th-century arias to her credit, as well as a heart-warming performance as Ariel in the Met Opera’s internationally broadcast Baroque pastiche The Enchanted Island in 2011, Mozart’s Exsultate, jubilate was always going to be in her comfort zone. And so it proved: her tone was rounded, her pitching exact, and the coloratura runs perfectly in place. The concluding Alleluia allowed her natural ebullience an especially effective outlet.

Carl Vine’s The Tree of Man, dedicated to de Niese and receiving its world première on this tour, called for an entirely different set of skills. A setting of an excerpt from Patrick White’s novel of the same name, this work began with throbbing clusters in the strings as a backdrop to the declamatory vocal part, in which the speaker describes an evocative, Australian landscape. The admirably clear diction from the soloist allowed the audience to follow the ebb and flow of verse and music, with returns of the opening textures interspersed with more forward-moving passages. While the musical language here was advanced, the expanded harmonic palette was very accessible, and some highly effective tone colours were employed (a shimmering passage of harmonic glissandi lingers particularly in the memory).

The other Australian offering, Richard Meale’s Cantilena Pacifica (1979), was a thoroughly tonal work which showcased the Artistic Director, Richard Tognetti, as the violin soloist. The nostalgic tone reflects the work’s elegiac purpose – it was written to commemorate the sudden death of a friend. Like Barber’s famous Adagio, with which it shares some fleeting similarities, it was derived from a string quartet movement. Here, an arch-shaped rocking figure in the accompanying strings persists throughout, giving the work a lullaby-like feel. The simple lyricism came across well in an unfussy delivery by soloist and orchestra.

The players’ vaunted ensemble skills had been in evidence from the start of the concert. The outer movements of the first work, Mozart’s Symphony in D, K196/121, a piece essentially in the early Classical galant style, fizzled with vitality thanks to the unanimity of attack and tone from the instrumentalists. The oboes and horns rested in the middle movement, an Andantino grazioso which was delectably phrased by the strings. The use of vibrato was deliberately restrained, in keeping with general trends in historically informed performance.

A much greater challenge awaited the orchestra in the second half, in Tognetti’s arrangement of Schubert’s String Quartet no. 14, Death and the Maiden for string orchestra. This was preceded by Schubert’s song of the same title, a brief dramatic scena in which the Maiden pleads and Death reassures. De Niese, who had swapped her white dress for a black number, exhibited a fine tone in the lower end of her register here. The lights were cut at the end of the song, and the orchestra launched into the ‘Quartet’ without the distraction of applause. This proved to be an interesting translation of the original, requiring immediate adjustment for the extra level of support provided by the bass, not to mention the greater density of sound. What (inevitably) was lost in intimacy was compensated for in sonic excitement, and indeed textural variety: in places the original four-part textures were restored (the double bass dropped out for the F major theme in the first movement, for instance), and the principals in each section were given moments to shine, such as in the D major trio in the third movement. Not everything was successful: the first-violin centred Variation 1 in the second movement was played by Tognetti alone, giving the passage the feeling of a concerto-like solo with backing orchestra (originally the violin starts with a decorated version of the melody, mutating into free counterpoint as the second violin takes over). The concluding tarantella was performed with a marvellous rhythmic tautness which quashed doubts as to the legitimacy of the enterprise, at least for the duration of the playing.