The Australian Chamber Orchestra is a protean ensemble, with the numbers on stage ranging from a handful up to forty or more, depending on the concert. Saturday’s event showcased a pared down group of seven string players in a programme which, for the most part, offered chamber music ‘covers’ of works for larger forces. As such, it provided a nice counterpart to that other staple of ACO programming in recent years, the inflation of late Beethoven Quartets into orchestral showpieces.

Timo-Veikko Valve © Jack Saltmiras
Timo-Veikko Valve
© Jack Saltmiras

The tagline for the concert read ‘Transforming Strauss and Mozart’, although in some ways the most intriguing item was a septet version of the Tristan Prelude by Sebastian Gürtler. Could this possibly come off? The Prelude is a challenge in any case when programmed apart from the opera: it concludes with subdued pizzicato Gs which perfectly tee up the song of the young sailor with which Act 1 opens, but as an ending this is rather unsatisfactory. Wagner provided a special concert ending, but the more usual option nowadays is to couple it with the Liebestod, with or without vocalist. Here, a brilliant alternative solution was offered.

The concert opened with an arrangement of Dowland’s lute variations Lachrimae, or seven teares. A nod to the original instrumentation was provided by the deft pizzicato of Timo-Veikko Valve. The cool delivery from the rest of the strings allowed a sense of restrained grief to emerge. This A minor work provided a context for the famously ambiguous opening of the Tristan Prelude which followed directly without any break. The arrangement brilliantly retained the spirit of the original, while allowing the counterpoint to show through in high relief. The violins did not enter until the repetition of the third phrase (normally given to the upper woodwinds), where their higher register provided an analogue for the expected difference in sonority. Later on, clever use was made of tremolo sul tasto (on the fingerboard), which gave the sound a slightly otherworldly feel. Obviously the climax didn’t have the sheer weight of sonority one is used to, but the players compensated for this with their driving intensity.

Those pizzicato Gs at the end were the perfect launch pad to the next piece – the C minor six-voice ricercar from Bach’s musical offering. Even the tone of the viola at the start matched the exhausted end of the Prelude. This gradually grew into a more full-bodied sound as the elegant dance of intersecting lines neared its satisfying conclusion.

Strauss’ Metamorphosen commemorates the destruction of the cultural institutions of Germany during the Second World War. Paring down the 23 solo strings to just seven is less radical than it sounds – Rudolf Leopold based his version on Strauss’ own short score produced during the drafting phase. The ACO musicians provided a thoughtful, expressive reading, bringing out clearly the quotations from Tristan (Marke’s lament) and the Eroica funeral march. Only the busy upward sweeping string figures lacked something of the panache of the full version.

After the intensity of the first half, it was a relief to leave behind insatiable yearnings and ghosts of the past and plunge into the Grande Sestetto Concertante, an anonymous arrangement of Mozart’s beloved Sinfonia Concertante for violin, viola and orchestra. What was quickly noticeable here was how democratic it was – it was not a case of two soloists and four backing musicians, but rather the solo lines were apportioned throughout the ensemble. For instance, the first cello was as likely to have the solo viola lines as was the first viola herself. Concertmaster Helena Rathbone had the lion’s share of the solo violin part, it is true; she gave a generally commanding reading, although at time at piano dynamics her tone didn’t come through as one would have liked.

Even the first movement cadenza (which Mozart notated in full) was divvied up between the players: this was certainly chamber music at its most egalitarian. The gorgeous second movement was rendered with sensitivity; in a nod to the aforementioned Eroica funeral march quotation in Metamorphosen, a very similar motif was heard in the cello cadenza. The joyous third movement continued the happy exchanging of material between the parts, with plenty of competitive duelling between first violin and viola serving to remind us of the source of this music. Utterly dissimilar to the first half it may have been, this sextet arrangement was nonetheless a delightful conclusion to a superlatively well-curated programme.