Less than a month after their highly acclaimed inaugural season as orchestra-in-residence at London’s Barbican Centre, the Australian Chamber Orchestra introduced yet another demanding programme of eleven performances in eight cities to its home audiences. The focus was on the music of Ludwig van Beethoven and, by association, on the orchestra’s Musical Director, Richard Tognetti. (Tognetti’s enormous artistic contributions notwithstanding, it seemed a bit excessive featuring his photo ten times in the otherwise excellent programme booklet. By contrast, there are two pictures of Beethoven in the same booklet and one each of Napoleon, Shakespeare and a Maserati!)

Richard Tognetti © Gary Heery
Richard Tognetti
© Gary Heery

The programme was appealingly simple and traditional. Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D major began the concert and the Symphony No.5 in C minor completed the two-course menu; both well-known and much-loved masterworks, with dozens of famous (and many more average) recordings contributing to their fame. Thus, the obvious question was: would Tognetti and the ACO be able to add something memorable and new to the available choice? And the answer was a resounding “yes”, albeit in different ways.

One of the defining factors of this concert was the type of sound the orchestra presented. While, as far as I could establish, the string players played their modern instruments, meticulous care was taken to use instruments for the woodwind, brass and timpani which closely resembled those in the early 19th century. The collective sound of wooden flutes and piccolo, valveless horns and trumpets and the like blended excellently with the strings’ elegant and light playing style, mostly free of vibrato. Although the size of the string section was considerably larger than at most other ACO concerts, the balance between strings and the rest of the ensemble still allowed an even distribution of sonorities. Even the softest oboe melodies came through easily and when the flutes doubled the first violins’ part, one could clearly hear both tone colours. It was a carefully formed, homogenous and exquisite soundscape, brimming with unusual resonances, and noticeably different from that of an ordinary symphony orchestra.

Tognetti has programmed and performed the Violin Concerto several times with the ACO in the past. His current reading demonstrated his never-ceasing curiosity to find new musical solutions. This is a most positive restlessness, a search which is bound to bring up challenging and notable results, notwithstanding its inherent risks. Without such an artistic approach, we would have to resort to the same old interpretations time and again – one of the reasons why keen music lovers often avoid performances of the famous works in the musical canon.

Tognetti’s playing qualities are legendary. His bowing is smooth as silk and in combination with an effortless left-hand technique and an inquisitive mind, he is able to open up the mysteries of the composition in front of our eyes. His musical solutions are seldom conventional; in fact, on this occasion, they were so regularly idiosyncratic, that at times, his interpretation appeared to come between the concerto and its audience. To give an example, it is always a crucial problem in HIP (or historically informed performances) how the soloist will play when accompanied by an orchestra using hardly any vibrato. Of the two perhaps most famous recordings of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto with a historically informed approach (both from the late 1990s), Vera Beths elected to play the solo part with hardly any vibrato, whereas Thomas Zehetmair performed it with a near-permanent, but very subtle one. Tognetti’s vibrato left me bewildered, as it seemed to be inconsistent, freely alternating between a wide, romantically conceived style and a pure sound. When the two extremes happened for example between four equal notes, with three of them unvibrated, with one completely different, it seemed unwarranted.

Surprisingly, his intonation was less secure than one would expect of an artist of his stature. A few minor slips almost belong to a passionate performance, but in this one – easy to rectify for someone of his calibre – it was more than that. Of the many cadenzas he chose to play, the most curious was the one in the first movement. While unquestionably virtuosic, it was excessively long and an odd hybrid of several pre-existing cadenzas, not necessarily matching in style or quality.

The ACO followed Tognetti’s free interpretation like few orchestras could. Most effective was the last movement’s recklessly boisterous atmosphere with terrific contrasts, which even accommodated the G minor episode’s elevated pathos.

It is hard to speak highly enough of the performance of the Fifth Symphony. I simply cannot remember hearing it played with more colour, depth of tone, energy and clear musical lines than on this occasion. There were unique musical solutions here, too, like the gorgeous non-vibrato solo of the oboe in the first movement or the rapid but supremely clean staccato theme in the Trio of the Scherzo. And seldom does the arrival of a glorious C major key shine as much as the Finale’s gratifyingly thundering fanfare with its clear articulation and rich resonances.