One of the reasons why the programmes of the Australian Chamber Orchestra are both challenging and inspiring is because of the ensemble’s always interesting and thought-provoking approach to repertoire. Richard Tognetti, the Artistic Director and Concertmaster of the orchestra, regularly expands its repertoire by being equally open to the music of near-forgotten past masters as to current ones that are not yet universally known. He also gradually got his audiences used to the idea of masterpieces of the string quartet repertoire being performed by a chamber orchestra, as attested to by the 2016 series of late Beethoven string quartets.

Richard Tognetti
© Paul Henderson

Their last subscription concert, performed in seven cities at a total of eleven times, reversed that concept: rather than a string quartet being increased to a chamber orchestra size, the whole orchestra was reduced to four players whose music making with the inimitable Kristian Bezuidenhout in a Mozart piano concerto was book-ended by two of Robert Schumann’s chamber music works.

The enjoyment of the first movement of Schumann’s String Quartet in A major, Op.41 no.3 was no less than four times interrupted by the hall’s changing lighting: bright to dark, then medium, before settling down eventually. Nonetheless, while listening to Tognetti and his colleagues, Helena Rathbone, Florian Peelman and Timo-Veikko Valve, my impressions were, unsurprisingly, positive. Right from the first bar – its harmony and melody an obvious nod to Beethoven – it was an intelligent, finely shaped performance, technically solid and musically convincing. The question that soon formulated in my mind, though, was: do these supremely gifted musicians sound like a professional string quartet? I felt a certain unease, and it was not until the slow movement that I realised the cause of it. They played – admirably and understandably – as individual musicians; each well-prepared and constantly listening to the others, but the homogeneity of bow strokes, certain elements of phrasing and, above all, vibrato, were not always present. Of these, the differing use of vibrato was the most noticeable. The ACO in general excels in employing this most important technical tool not as a constant part of their playing, but as one specific type of ornament, to be used with taste and discretion (as advised already in Leopold Mozart’s treatise in 1756). However, the spontaneous variability of Tognetti’s vibrato, while sounding terrific in a solo performance, possibly even when he leads a section, was impossible to follow note by note and thus induced his colleagues to use their vibrato as they thought best. This resulted in a stimulating soundscape peppered with internal inconsistencies, for example when vibrated sounds were accompanied with unvibrated ones, or when fast vibrato was played together with another player’s slower one. This is something a professional string quartet would ordinarily try to avoid.

This problem all but disappeared in the accompaniment of the Piano Concerto in C major, K415 by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, one of three concertos composed back to back in 1782, which can be performed without wind instruments in the orchestra. In fact, the concerto’s “orchestral” introduction was made quite otherworldly by Tognetti’s delicate, almost whisper-like elocution of the opening motif: he played it solo for two bars, then in thirds with Rathbone for another two until the viola and cello joined in – and the magic lasted. This melody, with its dotted rhythm and characteristic key, usually sounds military, even pompous – in stark contrast to this performance. To make this artistic experience even more unique, the soloist, Bezuidenhout, joined them by playing continuo (which is what Mozart himself would have done), blending in with the ensemble impeccably.

The performance went from strength to strength. Bezuidenhout probably spends more time playing on harpsichord and fortepiano than on modern piano; the required techniques are very different, but his skills cover all of them. His playing was void of any stilted mannerisms, and he sounded like a part of the ensemble, rather than its soloist. His effortless musicality, impeccable articulation and the unlaboured phrasing of his melodies reminded me of Annie Fischer’s interpretation of Mozart many moons ago, even if the actual playing technique was fundamentally different. His bass notes were supportive but light, his fortes clear and crisp, continually resembling more the sound of a contemporaneous fortepiano rather than the thunder of a modern Steinway. His free-flowing lines were in constant conversation with the accompanying musicians, their humble simplicity self-evident and their narrative always eloquent. His playing was so delicate that in one of the the minore episodes of the third movement, even the two violins’ pizzicato notes were crystal clear.

His deliberately light touch on the keyboard influenced the performance of the final item, the Piano Quintet in E flat major, Op.44 by Schumann. The joy radiating from the first movement was evident in the ensemble, yet, while lean and muscular, their playing never became aggressive. The theme of the second movement (In modo d’una Marcia) implied unusually dark feelings – its relentlessness foreshadowing the black dog of depression in Schumann’s life – though gently counterbalanced later by the lullaby of the C major episode. The Scherzo offered the perfect storm, followed without a break by the impulsive musical generosity of the Finale.