Bach and Haydn: both 18th-century composers, but in musical terms, worlds apart. There was no doubting that the former had primacy in the conception and marketing of a concert entitled ‘Bach Violin Concertos’: the two-page introduction from music director Richard Tognetti explored his early encounters with Bach’s music and that composer’s cosmic significance, with Haydn relegated to a brief final paragraph. That said, in the Sunday afternoon performance at the Opera House Concert Hall, the two Haydn symphonies made just as strong an impression: the orchestral players seemed to come alive in these works after their necessarily more restrained roles accompanying the concertos.

Richard Tognetti, Helena Rathbone and the ACO © Zan Wimberley
Richard Tognetti, Helena Rathbone and the ACO
© Zan Wimberley

A substantial portion of the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s repertoire comprises arrangements, and the concert opened with Tognetti’s version of the Preludio from Bach’s Partita in E major for solo violin. He himself played the original violin line, with the orchestra supplying a light pizzicato accompaniment. Uncharacteristically, Tognetti remained mostly immobile throughout this novelty item, his fixed gaze on the music resulting in a slightly stooped posture. There was virtually no break before Bach’s beloved Violin Concerto in E major – the match of keys made this very smooth – where Tognetti was more relaxed and mobile.

Haydn’s Symphony no. 27 in G major is so early a work that it precedes his decision to adopt the four-movement model that would come to be standard. There was great energy in the outer movements, while the central Andante: siciliano was given a particularly ethereal feel thanks to the transparent sound created by the orchestra. The body of the orchestra felt liberated both sonically and gesturally: in a typical piece of ACO theatre, the first movement ended with a dramatic flourish of bows in the air.

The Bach Double Violin concerto which concluded the half was the highlight for me, thanks to the (unplanned?) visual choreography between two soloists. At the start, it felt like a meeting of Montagues and Capulets: Helena Rathbone and her second violin henchmen on the left launched the main idea, and were answered by Tognetti and his backing violins on the right. Throughout the first movement, I felt that Rathbone might have projected a little more, if only to counteract the positional advantage Tognetti had (his stance meant that the violin’s f holes naturally directed the sound towards the audience). However, it was in the second and third movements that a subtle ballet of gestures developed. It was hard to hear the gorgeous slow movement as other than an amorous musical dialogue, with Tognetti frequently leaning in towards his partner, while a resistant Rathbone more often than not had her weight on her back (i.e. left) foot. Combat rather than wooing was again the order of the day in the final movement, and this was simply electric, as Rathbone went toe to toe with Tognetti both sonically and physically, and emerged with equal honours.

As a work, the Double Concerto is infinitely superior to the Triple Concerto, though we should probably make allowances for the fact that we only know the latter through a reconstruction of a hypothetical lost original. Here Tognetti and Rathbone were joined by Satu Vänskä, the three solo lines weaving together like the three Graces on Botticelli’s Primavera. Initially, Tognetti had the lion’s share of exciting material, but the others later came into their own, with Rathbone having a big solo in the third movement, although Tognetti provided the final cadenza here (one that didn’t sound particularly Baroque).

Sandwiched in the middle of the second half was the Sarabande from Bach’s Fourth Cello Suite, played by Timo Veikko-Valve. The historian in me appreciated this nod to a now defunct ‘medley’ style of programming (in earlier times, a typical concert would freely mix orchestral, solo and choral numbers), but it felt rather makeweight in context, not least because the rest of the orchestra stood casually at the side of the stage, as if waiting for him to finish. The soloist went for a lot of air in the sound (that is, long notes were generally tapered off) which, coupled with the almost complete lack of vibrato, meant that it sounded rather underwhelming in the unfriendly Concert Hall acoustic.

The most interesting part of Haydn’s Symphony no. 22 in E flat major “The Philosopher”, (which actually postdates no. 27) is the slow first movement, an antiphonal duet between two French horns and two cors anglais (i.e. English horns) above a clockwork accompanimental pattern from the strings. We had to wait until the second movement for the expected quick-tempo music, when the players were clearly enjoying themselves in this bustling light-weight Presto. Exuberance was the order of the day again in the propulsive final movement, which left performers and listeners in right good humour.