It's refreshing to see an innovative programme and the Australian Chamber Orchestra with its artistic directors Richard Tognetti and Pekka Kuusisto, rarely disappoints in this respect. Looking at the programme, and reading the same, one would have felt that the mood of the concert would be very sombre but happily, especially on Valentine's day, this was not really reflected in the music. The first half, which should be billed "Elizabethan and the last two centuries", was given an introduction by the diminutive, but larger-than-life, Kuusisto who explained importantly that there would be no specific breaks between the pieces.

Pekka Kuusisto © Kaapo Kamu
Pekka Kuusisto
© Kaapo Kamu

Nicco Muhly's “Material in E flat” from Drones and Violin were already playing with Pekka accompanying as the fifteen strong string players walked on stage. The virtuoso violin part was striking but the piece all too short. Erkki-Sven Tuur's Action, Passion, Illusion was played in three parts surrounding the other two works but not in that order-they were similar i n character and "Illusion" was played last allowing for an introspective interval.

Sandwiched between the first two was Tippett's "Lament" from Variations on an Elizabethan theme which was written for the 1953 Aldeburgh Festival on the theme Sellinger's Round, with six other variations written by other English composers including, of course, the host, Benjamin Britten. This was the most enjoyable of this section, with beautiful violin solo themes above a catchy ground bass. I wonder if I could have done any better than the original audience who didn't succed in identifying any of the composers correctly!

Bruce Dessner's Tenebre formed the backbone of the first part and was more lively and upbeat than one might imagine based as it is on the Festival of Tenebrae before Easter. There were again references to Baroque and earlier composers. The vocal episode at the end was recorded by Sufjan Stephens representing the Lamentation of Jeremiah – heady stuff but the tenor of the music did not reflect this and I enjoyed the piece.

After the break, we were treated to Sibelius in the form of Rakastava (The Lover). This composer was hardly the happiest of characters at the best of times and this was the case when he composed this piece in Paris, when neither his health nor personal life was in good order. This setting for string orchestra was its fourth version and took a long time to be published. The eponymous first movement is introspective but not sad, while the second "Path Of The Beloved" is fast and rhythmical with much pizzicato and six notes on the triangle at the end representing the concert's only departure from the string format. The third movement "Good Night – Farewell" featured beautiful solo parts for the violin and cello and ended in the same mood as the first. Overall, the piecewas most notable for its strongly nationalistic character as is so typical of its composer.

Continuing the mood, superficially at least, was Beethoven's "Serioso" String Quartet no. 11 in F minor, Op.95. Beethoven unusually gave the nickname himself, based on the marking for the Third movement, but he told friends that he did not want the work performed in public. Tognetti has arranged many of the late quartets for string orchestra and I would dearly love to know what the composer would have thought. I prefer the original and find that replacing one instrument by four does not enhance the sound, feeling or meaning of the works. I prefer to hear downsizing of larger orchestral works such as symphonies, which Tognetti has also achieved. The tone of the work was preserved, however, and the last movement was particularly lively and the least to suffer from the alteration.

Needless to say, the orchestra was faultless under Kuusisto's energetic direction and Timo-Veikko Valve added further Finnish enthusiasm to the lower registers. All in all, a pleasant afternoon, not as dark as the programme suggested.