According to perhaps the most common and conservative programming principle, an orchestral concert should start with an overture, followed by a concerto and, after the interval, finish with a showcase symphony. At first sight, this appeared to be the case with the last subscription concert of the Australian Chamber Orchestra but then, programming and performances of this innovative ensemble can seldom be called common, let alone conservative, even if this concert was firmly based on much loved compositions of Richard Strauss, Mozart and Beethoven.

Elisabeth Leonskaja © Julia Wesely
Elisabeth Leonskaja
© Julia Wesely

Nothing on the programme turned out to be exactly as one might have assumed. The String Sextet from Capriccio is the prelude to Strauss’ last opera in all but name. In the arrangement by Timo-Veikko Valve, Principal Cello of the ACO, this sextet took on a new appearance as a work for string orchestra. This was mildly ironic because Strauss was breaking all sorts of rules to replace the traditional grand overture (usually treated as a flamboyant ‘teaser’ to the opera) with a chamber work for six players – which here was performed by twenty. The playing was stylish and polished. The artistic decision of presenting the intimate, albeit non-verbal, conversation of six equal musical parts of the original by unequal numbers of players (the two violin parts were played by five-five musicians, whereas the other four parts by two on each part) raised acoustic problems, which even these highly sensitive players could not entirely overcome. This problem may also have contributed to a partial loss of a feeling of inner piece, so distinctive in the original sextet.

Mozart’s “Jeunehomme” Piano Concerto, was not performed by a ‘young man’ as the title might suggest, nor by a young woman (for whom it was originally written), but by the mature guest artist, still in her prime, Elisabeth Leonskaja. She is one of the last still active members of the renowned ‘Soviet school’ that nurtured the likes of Oistrakh, Rostropovich and Berman, although she’s been living in the West since the late 1980s. Her quiet demeanour, strikingly humble attitude towards music and ‘musicking’ reminded me not only of the stage presence of her erstwhile chamber music partner, Sviatoslav Richter, but also, that of that other grande dame of the piano several decades ago, Annie Fischer.

Her first entry was an immediate riposte to the opening two bars’ violin theme; natural, self-explanatory, unaffected. Under her hands, every note, every virtuosic passage rolled forward with unpretentious ease. Other pianists often create that impression because their technique is so finely chiselled. When Leonskaja launched, for example, into any one of the numerous cadenzas of this concerto, my overwhelming impression was not that her technique is impeccable (though it is), but that she is in the middle of a pleasant but important conversation with the notes, the audience, the orchestra, even with Mozart, and every utterance from her is as eloquent as it is meaningful. The slow movement’s atmosphere sounded solemn but not overly gloomy, performed with a sense of resignation but not as a dirge – which is how some interpret its C minor tonality. The string players introduced its theme with sensitive intimacy and hardly any vibrato, and the movement’s pace flowed, faultlessly following the score’s Andantino tempo marking, which rarely marks a tragic mood in Mozart’s works.

The elasticity in Leonskaja’s playing meant that every note had its own significance and direction. With the wisdom of an older musician who has seen much and heard even more, she shaped every melody freely, without ever losing contact with the musicians surrounding her. This was helped by her instrument ingeniously being turned almost diagonally on stage, so that most of the orchestral players would fit into her peripheral vision.

Instead of the traditional symphony, another Valve arrangement finished the concert, this one based on Beethoven’s String Quartet in E flat major, Op.127. The richness of the opening chords or the jovial frolicking of the Scherzando vivace third movement validated this transcription that excellently utilised the sonority of a full string orchestra. Having said that, the full enjoyment of this performance was somewhat undermined by the simple fact that in Beethoven’s late quartets, the first violin part is without fail extremely demanding, both technically and musically. Those rapid passages, those sinewy musical lines are hard enough for one extremely good violinist, but when five of them are playing it, the spontaneously sounding intimacy of that part is as difficult to maintain, as is its unwaveringly solid intonation. To be sure, this was still a coherent and stimulating performance, led by guest concert master Roman Simović with expressive gestures and solid musicality, even if, in the end, I was not entirely persuaded that the refined texture of the original quartet could be convincingly translated even by such a brilliant string orchestra, as the ACO.