In the UK, chamber orchestras these days have a slightly old-fashioned image: groups such as the English Chamber Orchestra, the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, and the London Mozart Players – who played a vital part in our musical life of the 1970s and 80s – have recently been struggling to maintain their profiles.

Richard Tognetti, © Gary Heery
Richard Tognetti,
© Gary Heery

Not so the Australian Chamber Orchestra (ACO), who have just kicked off their European tour with two performances in the UK. Led by the brilliant and energetic violinist Richard Tognetti, the ensemble consists of 17 string players and a handful of wind players from the younger generation. Dressed in smart-casual outfits (black shirt for men and black short dress and leggings for women), they perform standing up (except for the cellos) and their eloquent body language is part of their style. Their performances are vibrant, versatile, articulate and at times even groovy, and they have succeeded in refreshing the chamber orchestra repertoire – and, more importantly, they have added new repertoire by commissioning and also by arranging works for chamber orchestra.

They began the evening with Tognetti’s own arrangement of Grieg’s First String Quartet – a refreshing break from the too-often-played Holberg Suite for strings. In the first movement, they vividly brought out the contrast of mood between the passionate first theme and the lyrical and wistful second theme, and the second movement was warm and intimate, with beautiful solo playing from Tognetti as well as the viola and cello princpals. Their feet were almost tapping in the folk-dance finale, which closed with a big flourish. In general, they use vibrato sparingly and more as an expressive tool, which no doubt is influenced by the period-style performance (the versatile ACO perform on period instruments).

To perform Shostakovich’s Concerto no. 1 for piano, trumpet and strings without a conductor is no mean feat, but the ACO and the two dynamic soloists Simon Trpčeski and Tine Thing-Helseth pulled it off with great aplomb. In this conductor-less format, the piano assumed the pivotal role, but each player performed with remarkable alertness and it seemed more like large-scale chamber music than a scaled-down orchestra. I was especially impressed by the way Trpčeski performed with such spontaneity of phrasing and expression. Compared to the piano, the trumpet has a lesser role, but the rising talent Tine Thing-Helseth performed with elegance and precision. She was able to display her sweet tone and brilliant technique in their encore, Two Folk Songs by Manuel de Falla.

In the second half, the wind players joined in and performed Mozart’s Symphony no. 40 in G minor. As a whole, it was an admirable performance: tight ensemble, wonderful sense of forward momentum, and lively dance-like rhythms in the inner movements are some of the characteristics. I had slight reservations about some of their articulation and phrasing, which seemed to have a bit of a modern “swing”. I also felt this in their first encore – the last movement of Mozart’s Symphony no. 29 (they also played a further encore: the second movement from Haydn’s Symphony no. 4). However, I realise that this is an integral part of their interpretative style which makes their performance so exciting, and, in fact, I don’t want them to change it.

The ACO under Tognetti have succeeded not only in revitalising the chamber orchestra format, but in establishing their own individual and modern brand: there are many things chamber orchestras in the old world could learn from them. I wish them great success in the rest of their European tour.