It had to happen, of course. The Australian Chamber Orchestra threw its collective hat into the worldwide celebrations of Ludwig van Beethoven’s birth 250 years ago, and did so with the Master’s first three symphonies. Such programming can be regarded as symbolic, and the thought that a complete symphony cycle might be in progress is hard to dismiss. This may however raise the problem of too much of a good thing – can one eat three delicious desserts in one sitting? 

Richard Tognetti and the ACO © Simon van Boxtel
Richard Tognetti and the ACO
© Simon van Boxtel

For this festive occasion, the ACO’s core string body was extended by fourteen young musicians from the Australian National Academy of Music (ANAM), while the outstanding wind and brass players were either locals or invited from various European orchestras. These latter players used period instruments (replicating the instruments from Beethoven’s times, which were quite different from their modern counterparts), whereas it appeared that at least some of the string players used metal strings and modern bows (as opposed to gut strings and classical bows). Vibrato was mostly absent from the string playing and when used, it was almost always for ornamentation.

Such details demonstrate a certain approach to music making but not its quality. What made these symphonies immensely enjoyable was the fervent musical imagination of Richard Tognetti, the orchestra’s Director and Concertmaster, and how his ideas emerged through the unbroken concentration, technical excellence and perfect ensemble playing of his colleagues. Performing Beethoven symphonies without a conductor is less uncommon today than it was a couple of decades ago; even so, very few orchestras dare to risk tight ensemble playing by discarding a conductor. Tognetti – as always – regarded the three symphonies as chamber music pieces, written perhaps for larger than usual ensembles, where the performers’ unabated attention to each other and the fine details of the music was of paramount importance. To be sure, he alternated between playing and emphasising certain musical shapes with his bow, but this could hardly be classed as conducting, and there was never any need for him to indicate instrumental entries or tempo changes.

As a result, a homogeneous and appealing sonic world was created with matter-of-fact ease (magic should never look difficult) in the light and flexible playing of the orchestra, leaning gently, but never dogmatically towards a historically informed performance. In the first movement of Symphony no. 1 in C major, the natural flow of the themes was regularly broken up with unexpected accents, so typical of Beethoven’s often revolutionary innovations. Less effective was the slow movement, as its singing “cantabile” qualities fell victim occasionally to the effort of maintaining the driving energy (which worked so well in the first movement). The third movement (Menuetto) is a traditional jovial dance only in name; its character – here frantic, there witty – is much closer to the Scherzo movement, developed to perfection by the composer in later years. The deliberately hesitant introduction of the Finale led the audience note by note to the main theme. The fast runs on the string instruments were brilliantly executed and the striking dynamic contrasts never let the listeners’ attention drop.

The slow introduction to the opening movement of Symphony no. 2 in D major appropriately utilised the contrasts between the opening fanfare and the tender wood wind melody. The minor glitches that appeared every now and then in the woodwinds and the horns in the first two symphonies were more than offset with great sonorities and magnificent musical lines in these instruments. The Larghetto was probably faster than many listeners would have expected, yet the iconic recordings of Frans Brüggen, Roger Norrington and others from the 1980s and later had prepared musicians to take Beethoven’s tempo markings seriously.

In the performance of Symphony no. 3 in E flat major, Eroica”, Tognetti and his orchestra built further on the strengths of the previous two works. The ensemble playing was perfect even in the most complex polyphonic sections of the first movement. Giving emphasis to the double basses against the violin melody at the beginning of the Marcia funebre increased the feeling of trepidation. This movement begins and ends with sotto voce, interpreted by Tognetti as much more than just a quiet voice; barely audible dread was whispered by the strings in the final bars. However, Beethoven’s nominal hero rose from the ashes and, after a splendid set of variations on the famous Eroica theme, the final movement and the concert ended with triumphant exuberance.

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