The Australian Chamber Orchestra, like most professional orchestras around the world, has had to suspend its carefully designed concerts since the outbreak of Covid-19. Soon after the first subscription concerts in February, celebrating the 250th anniversary of Ludwig van Beethoven’s birth with a planned cycle of his symphonies, all concerts were cancelled in Australia. The extended hiatus was broken by ACO’s first attempt to perform again in front of a heavily reduced audience some two months ago in an experimental concert, assisted by masked ushers and strict distancing rules.

The Australian Chamber Orchestra in City Recital Hall
© Nic Walker

Saturday’s performance was their first subscription concert in Sydney since the beginning of the year, presenting a significantly revised, one-hour long programme, of which only the last number justified the Beethoven 250 title. Appealingly, it commenced with the orchestra’s Director and Concert Master, Richard Tognetti’s kind-hearted greetings infused with effervescent humour, in which he thanked the audience for their support and presence.

Music making began with Franz Schubert’s Quartettsatz in C minor, D.703, from 1820, arranged by Tognetti, a movement which survived from a never completed string quartet. It surprised with a more rounded, less agitated and generally slower than usual performance than its C minor key (considered to be dark in the Classical/early Romantic era) and the nervous, soft, imitative and chromatic tremolo theme of its opening bars would suggest to most performers of this brilliant work. Despite the many extreme dynamic markings of the score, this performance felt often melancholic, almost held back, an unusual, but here convincing approach. The lower strings sounded exemplarily lean and unified, but the first violins’ playing was marred by an occasional lack of intonational focus. The second violin section was led by Satu Vänskä, normally standing next to Tognetti in the first violins; her leading created a slightly different cohesion, tone and sense of balance from the usual playing of the section. I would hasten to add that this is not a qualitative comment, but merely an appreciation of how strong musical personalities can leave different hallmarks on their section's performance. 

Richard Tognetti and the ACO
© Nic Walker

The next composition was The Lark Ascending, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ ever-popular work for solo violin and orchestra, that the composer thoroughly revised for its premiere, exactly a hundred years after the Schubert Quartettsatz was composed. It later gained its well-known orchestral format, but was reduced on this occasion to make it ‘Covid-safe’. No woodwind instruments were to be seen, and the emotive sound of the triangle was performed by one of the violinists. Thus, the audience heard a revision-turned-transcription-turned-arrangement of the work, with the muted string orchestra following every movement of their leader, sounding warm and supple. Tognetti elegantly changed the so often overly sweet character of the many pentatonic melodies (consisting of only five notes only, try the black keys on a piano) with a rhapsodic, even improvisatory approach, using a multitude of techniques, such as a voluptuous vibrato or none at all, using his bow on the fingerboard (called sul tasto) or playing with a full, rich sound.

A world premiere by British composer, Anna Clyne, called Stride, represented the music of our times. Based on this work, her music can be described as post-Korngoldian neo-classical, with its traditional idioms, frequent syncopations, parallel intervals between instruments and so on. A recognisable tonal centre, if not obvious, is always around the corner in this composition, which also sports a number of thinly veiled musical quotations from Beethoven's Pathétique Sonata to the high, screeching violin glissandi, so reminiscent of the sound effects in the shower scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s film, Psycho

Richard Togmetti and the Australian Chamber Orchestra
© Nic Walker

As the final number, the ACO presented Beethoven: the last two movements, the Cavatina and the Grosse Fuge from the original version of his String Quartet in B flat major, Op.130, arranged by Tognetti. The Cavatina impressed as an intimate conversation, almost too tender for outside listeners to be part of. The whisper-quiet, diaphanous introduction to the breathless C flat major theme of the slow movement was just one of several memorable moment in this slow movement. As to the Fugue, the level of familiarity that the ACO musicians have with one of the most complex movements Beethoven ever wrote, is truly impressive. Their command over the many rhythmical and technical challenges of the movement was as noticeable in the brutal dissonances of the fugal entries as in the oasis of the delicate diatonic lines of the G flat major countersubject. A theme signalling quiet hope in the troubling journey of the Grosse Fuge, somehow reminding the listeners that in troubled times, there is always a glimmer of hope. This concert offered some.