From the carefully choreographed opening bow strokes on Tuesday evening, it was clear that the Australian Chamber Orchestra was on form. It had been almost a year since I last heard the group in the City Recital Hall and as a result, certain features of their playing struck me with new force. The opening Grave of Mendelssohn’s String Symphony no. 9 in C major “La Suisse” had a strongly ‘period’ quality to the sound: a slight astringency to the tone, minimal vibrato, and (as always) imaginatively shaped phrasing. The following Allegro, by contrast, throbbed with energy, with the divisi violas especially notable. The Andante second movement featured contrasting blocks given over to the upper and lower strings respectively: there was a slight lack of pitch unanimity among the multiply divided violins here, while their lower counterparts brought out the explicitly Baroque qualities of their minor-mode section.

Stefan Jackiw © Lisa-Marie Mazzucco
Stefan Jackiw
© Lisa-Marie Mazzucco

The lazy yodelling figures in the trio of the third movement were the most obvious ‘Swiss’ references in the piece. Edgy dynamism was again to the fore in the rendition of the finale, with a brief respite towards the end before the madcap dash to the finish. One was left marvelling at the accomplishment of the 14-year-old who wrote this piece: aside from the Baroque and Swiss evocations, Mendelssohn also experimented in the first movement with the Beethovenian trick of bringing back a theme in the ‘wrong’ key before putting matters right.

The second piece on the program, Bottesini’s Gran Duo Concertante, is a shamelessly virtuosic work, but enjoyable nonetheless. The different attitudes of the two soloists were fascinating to behold: visiting violinist Stefan Jackiw was all eyes-closed absorption, while regular bassist Maxime Bibeau (centre-stage instead of in his normal position at the rear of the ensemble) gazed fixedly at his treble partner. One couldn’t quarrel with the results: the coordinated passagework between the two was tight, with the duet in harmonics especially delightful. Bibeau’s less showy demeanour belied the enormous technical challenges of his part: one could see just how active his left arm was as it scampered up and down his gigantic instrument (and his 16th-century da Salò bass is noticeably larger than the norm). Bottesini himself was a celebrated bassist, and he crafted the work so that the two instruments could dialogue almost as equals, so frequent were the bass’ excursions into the highest registers. It was only in some of the more lyrical passages that the lower instrument seemed a little lacking in tone compared with the violin.

Wolf’s Serenade, which began the second half, is an odd work, combining accessible tunes with just enough weirdness to make it an excellent identification puzzle piece: at places it arguably foreshadows Hindemith, at others I heard pre-echoes of Mahler. At the hands of the ACO it was all bouncy lightness and whimsy: other readings are possible, but it was hard to quarrel with the frothy fun the players were having with it all the way to final cheeky pizzicato chord.

Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E minor dates from the other end of the composer’s career, and one of his finest and most popular compositions. Jackiw confirmed the impression he had made in the Gran Duo: he has an utterly assured technique, a warm and well-projected tone, and overall conveys an air of consummate mastery. Standing in the balanced pose of a martial arts fighter (legs apart and knees slightly bent), he showed no strain at all as he negotiated the first movement. In fact, it looked and sounded too easy: he pushed the tempo uncomfortably fast in the haunting opening solo, and matters were only reined in when the orchestra took over the lead. Thereafter everything was immaculate (if still too rapid), but I missed the sense of struggle that for me is core in this most passionate of movements. Perhaps the blame (if this is the appropriate word) shouldn’t rest entirely on the soloist: the much-reduced ten-piece orchestra would have encouraged a leaner, speedier delivery. Jackiw’s sound in the slow movement was everything one would have wished, and the sparkling third movement was just right – here he kept a tight lid on the tempo, which made the effect all the more impressive.

Both the concertos were adaptations for string orchestra of works which would originally have had wind instruments, etc. Given the far greater fame of the Mendelssohn concerto, Richard Tognetti’s arrangement was always going to undergo the greater scrutiny. He substituted a viola for the famous bassoon note that links the first to the second movements, and there were other moments when the timbral changes were slightly disconcerting. But then the strings are the heart and soul of this orchestra, and under the understated leadership of Satu Vänskä, the players demonstrated why this continues to be the case.