The title of the latest programme by the Australian Chamber Orchestra is simply: Goldberg Variations. While Bernard Labadie’s ingenious arrangement of JS Bach’s Goldberg Variations for string orchestra takes up all of the second half of the programme, the first half was no less interesting. It started with another arrangement, Igor Stravinsky’s Three Pieces for String Quartet, one of several light, easy to listen works of the Russian composer. For someone of Stravinsky’s phenomenal talent, probably not requiring too much effort to write either.

Members of the ACO © Gary Heery
Members of the ACO
© Gary Heery

Under the musical direction of Richard Tognetti, however, every note of these three short pieces grew to immense significance and was articulated with thought-through determination. The intensity of Tognetti’s solo in the first piece was such that it bordered on distortion, without ever overstepping that mark. The well-defined growling ostinato at the beginning of the second movement, the rapid alteration from long legatos to extremely short notes, the abrupt alterations of dynamics and the constantly changing meter or tempo were not merely proof of rhythmic precision but also suggested that all players felt exactly the same way about the minutiae of the performance. Their attention to detail made Stravinsky’s seemingly slight opus sound similar to Anton von Webern’s intense string music, such as the Six Bagatelles Op.9.

The last movement made strong inroads towards a technical effect, the subtle, even minimalist art of playing a single note with infinite varieties of tone, colour and dynamics. This became also prominent in the next work, the first movement (Nightfalls) of The Four Quarters by Thomas Adès, a contemplative nocturnal composition, where individual notes (often harmonics) were regularly sounded at different times, but then played together with delicate purity.

The three compositions of the first half were performed seamlessly, without any breaks. Thus, after the resonance of the last notes of Nightfalls finished, the first eight notes of the unembellished ground bass (the melody in the bassline) to the Goldberg Variations were immediately played with quiet simplicity by guest artist, Erin Helyard, on a piano. This was surprising not only because it was the first non-string sound of the evening, but also, because one would seldom associate an ACO performance of any Baroque composition with the contribution of a grand piano. This was, however, possible, even well-fitting in Tognetti’s arrangement of the Canons on a Goldberg Ground, BWV 1087. The introduction of the bass line was followed by the fourteen enigmatic canons which provided a near-complete list of all canonic techniques known to man at the time. The music of these canons has only recently been discovered as part of a personal copy of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, the last item of the concert.

Bernard Labadie’s arrangement of the Goldberg Variations had been created two decades ago, but was premiered in Sydney on this occasion. It is a sensitively conceived transcription, which follows the original in most aspects, yet not rigidly. It successfully changes the sonic world of a keyboard composition into a pseudo concerto grosso, where next to many solo movements, orchestral tuttis are also to be heard. The Aria (according to Bach’s instructions, starting and finishing the performance) is the theme; the thirty variations in between its two playings are always orchestrated differently; no two consecutive movements have the same instrumentation.

The Aria was introduced by Tognetti and Timo-Veikko Valve, the unwaveringly outstanding Principal Cellist of ACO, with gentle theorbo accompaniment. In a team where every single player excelled, Tognetti and Valve time and time again demonstrated how to play with a veil-thin, translucent sound that carries easily to the last row of the auditorium. In stark contrast, the first variation erupted with Baroque energy, showing the full might of an ACO tutti sound. Everybody became at some stage a soloist in this cohesive performance, as – most appealingly – there were several variations where different pairs of tutti players performed solo with only the assistance of the continuo. Even more obvious was the contrast to the traditional orchestral structure, where the Bachian counterpoint rested on only two musicians with absolutely no accompaniment (in movements 11, 17, 20 and 27).

To state that there were irresistible dancing characters (Variation 7), mournful tutti movements (Variation 21), rapid passages with amazing orchestral clarity and virtuosic solo passages that sounded play, rather than work, would be true but hardly the essence of this evening. The ACO treated its audience with one of the best performances I have ever heard from this world-class ensemble. The coherence of their musical approach was as awe-inspiring as their self-evident technical execution and the near-perfection of the ensemble. One cannot wish for a more moving ending to a concert than the barely audible, every-note-has-its-own-life meta-communication between the Tognetti-Valve duo, as they bid farewell with the mournful second sounding of the Aria.