It takes a special orchestra to perform standard repertoire in a completely revelatory way. Having heard Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony performed by the Australian Chamber Orchestra, I almost feel like I do not want to hear it performed in any other way again. There were several unique aspects to their performance. The whole orchestra played standing up, without conductor; instead it was directed by their leader, Richard Tognetti. The brass and woodwind played on period instruments. This revolutionized the sound and made the brass more raspy and less refined than the modern equivalents, adding a peasant-like rustic character to the score, while the woodwind sound had a wonderful soft, lyrical edge to it.

Australian Chamber Orchestra, © Jon Frank
Australian Chamber Orchestra,
© Jon Frank

To play a Beethoven symphony without a conductor is impressive in itself, but to perform it with such unanimity of ensemble was extraordinary. It was orchestral music performed with the same intimacy as a string quartet. The level of engagement with the music was at such a high level that the most subtle of nuances were observed by every player. Their enthusiasm and passion was clear to see. Even seemingly unimportant motifs were enjoyed and delighted in. The back desk of cellos would smile at each other as they played the simplest of bars. There was a great awareness of the other parts of the texture too. The lead viola would glance across at the lead second violin, appreciating their line as well. It is rare to see such a high level of awareness in a relatively large ensemble with all the players focused on each other rather than on a conductor waving around in the centre of the stage. This interaction enabled the audience to feel a greater sense of involvement as well. I almost felt as if I was a member of the orchestra and was sitting in amongst them, sharing in the experience, rather than sitting several rows back.

The evening began with a world première of a piece scored for strings only, called Flamma by composer Erkki-Sven Tüür. While this was not the easiest of pieces to understand on the first hearing I found myself transfixed by the wonderful, rich, homogenous sound of the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s string section, again displaying wonderful string-quartet-like tight ensemble even without a conductor and effectively negotiating the complex modern rhythms of the music.

The main work of the first half of the concert was Wieniawski’s Violin Concerto no. 2 in D minor. Wieniawski is a composer like Paganini and Kreisler, whose name is indelibly associated with the violin and not surprisingly the concerto contained every technical difficulty possible on the violin. The solo part was full of lyricism, off-the-string staccato, double stopping, and scalic passages racing up and down the fingerboard. The evening’s program notes stated that the last movement contains ‘the stuff that has young violinists waking sweaty in the night.’ This was definitely not evident in the evening’s performance, such was the ease with which the most difficult of passages were tackled. However the solo part was not performed by a soloist who had been specially brought in, but instead by the orchestra’s only leader, the same man who ably led the Tüür and the Beethoven from the front, the indefatigable Richard Tognetti.

The sole work in the second half of the concert was Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. I have already commented on the revelatory nature of the playing and I can honestly say that I have never heard Beethoven performed in a more spirited way. The period woodwind instruments breathed new life into the flowing water brook of the slow movement, with the unaccompanied bird calls being akin to a shepherd playing his pipe in the field; whereas the storm of the fourth movement was truly terrifying. The brass playing was unapologetic, achieving a raw, edgy sound not possible on modern instruments. The famous melody of the Allegretto after the storm had a wonderful joie-de-vivre and swagger about it and brought the concert to its conclusion in a life-affirming way.

The Australian Chamber Orchestra are about to embark on a tour of Europe. I would urge anyone in Europe who has never heard this talented ensemble before to buy a ticket.

*****