The title of the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s current subscription series clearly announced its intention: “Celebrating Mozart”. Indeed, the sharp focus of the concerts fell on a brief period between approximately 1765 and 1784, during which the pieces on the programme, a Haydn symphony and four Mozart compositions, were written.

Richard Tognetti © Gary Heery
Richard Tognetti
© Gary Heery

Haydn’s Symphony no. 39 in G minor and Mozart’s Symphony no. 25 in G minor book-ended the evening, with obvious links connecting them. Both symphonies are in the same key and both share the concept of the slow movement being in 3/8 time and in E flat major. Whether Haydn’s symphony had a direct or merely an indirect influence on Mozart’s so-called Sturm und Drang style of writing (originally a literary movement, known for its dramatic, tempestuous approach to its subject) is an often-debated point amongst music scholars.

Haydn’s G minor symphony was composed around 1765-66 (we know this from circumstantial evidence: this was the only period when he had four horns at his disposal at the Esterházy court and this work, unusually, employs four horns). Under the ever-watchful leadership of Music Director and Concert Master, Richard Tognetti, the ACO made full use of the dramatic contrasts offered by the composer’s brilliant writing, for example, the quiet first phrases interrupted by surprising pauses at the opening the symphony, followed by dramatic outburst of all orchestral forces. The Andante second movement sported a bright enough tempo to have an almost dancing feel; however, the even faster pulse of the next movement proved that to be the real Menuetto. The Finale was indeed “stormy” with its rapid passages and unexpected accents.

The first in the series of Mozart works was in fact not an original composition: the last movement from Mozart’s Piano Sonata in B flat major, K.333 was arranged by the soloist of the evening, Croatian pianist Dejan Lazić, as a Rondo concertante. The cited raison d'être for this transcription is the cadenza that the composer wrote into this movement; common in concertos but almost unknown in piano sonatas. With a duration of just under seven minutes, it is a slight item for an ensemble concert; pleasant and endearing without, however, appearing superior to the solo piano version.

More convincing was the performance of the Piano Concerto no. 14 in E flat major, K.449 (in terms of chronology, the latest item on the programme), written – amongst another five piano concertos! – in 1784. Lazić’s technique is enviably eloquent. Under his long fingers, the fast runs of the two Allegro movements rolled seamlessly, the balance between main and accompanying voices was carefully observed and he always kept a light touch, avoiding the temptation of the powerful Steinway piano’s possibilities for a powerful sound. It sounded almost too easy in most faster sections, although in the middle (Andantino) movement, he demonstrated the depth Mozart’s score and his own musicality could invoke.

Tognetti’s vast experience playing the solo part of the Violin Concerto no. 3 in G major, K.216, was evident from the very first notes; he performed it with utter confidence and supreme technique. His approach to musical expression was refined but also, at times in danger of being mannered. Whether or when or how much he would use vibrato seemed to be based on instinct more than conscious decision (nothing wrong with that), but when the accompanying ensemble played almost constantly without vibrato, this risked sending ripples of discord through the otherwise perfectly working balance between the sound of soloist and orchestra.

His stage presence was as unique as his concept of the work. Unlike most soloists, he performed using a score and occasionally he also directed the orchestra – not that this excellent ensemble needed much direction. Unlike most violin soloists would, Tognetti almost always stood facing stage left, rather than turning towards the audience, presumably to help his precious Guarneri del Gesù instrument reach maximum projection.

The final work, Mozart’s own Symphony in G minor (he wrote another in the same key fifteen years later) began with relentless exaltation, characteristic of the Sturm und Drang style. In the meditative slow movement, Tognetti and his colleagues brought out the difference between muted violins and unmuted lower strings with great effect. The other curious feature of this movement – that the string melody’s closely followed imitation on the bassoons should have unusual accents, not present in the original melody – was not explored to its full, surprising extent. The last movement was full of youthful energy, only diminished by a problem of balance: the four horns often sounded overwhelmingly loud and, at times, harsh, as exemplified by their repeat of the opening theme of the strings.