Mozart’s symphonic output by almost any definition has to be a fundamental cornerstone in the repertoire of any larger string ensemble. The Australian Chamber Orchestra is no exception. At the very beginning of Richard Tognetti’s tenure as Artistic Director, the brilliant Frans Brüggen was invited to visit and conduct the last three Mozart symphonies; the ACO recorded the works several decades later as well. On their current national tour, it was the turn of three, slightly earlier symphonies to be performed, two of which were named after the cities where they were composed and one after a family friend.

Loading image...
Richard Tognetti directs the Australian Chamber Orchestra
© Charlie Kinross

This was one of the largest formations of the ACO one is likely to see and hear. The core string ensemble was boosted with excellent contributions from nine young musicians from the Australian National Academy of Music as well as from the outstanding participation of especially invited woodwind and brass players from Australia and overseas, who specialise in early music instruments and practices. That said (and this is not surprising to regular followers of the ACO), the main emphasis of Tognetti and his colleagues’ interpretation did not seem to be an “authentic performance” (even if it auspiciously resembled one) but one that suited their own boundless artistic imagination. The results were mostly excellent.

Apart from the cellists, all the players were standing. Tognetti was constantly on the move, animatedly stepping on and off his personal mini-pulpit, at times turning around completely to maintain eye contact with his own section. His erstwhile erratic conducting has changed a lot in recent years and now he tends to indicate subtle changes of phrasing and time with his bow, when it is not on the strings. His work as concertmaster-cum-leader is very close to orchestral practices in the 18th century, when a conductor was seldom used.

From the long opening chord of the Symphony no. 35 in D major, “Haffner”, it became clear that vibrato would be used only as a special type of ornament and, thus, sparingly. Its regular, conventional usage was replaced by consistently brisk tempos, clear musical lines and a cheerful energy that was boosted by the generously exposed trumpet and timpani parts. The second movement pulsated genuinely with a “walking pace”, following the original meaning of the Italian tempo marking of Andante. The Menuetto had a pleasant dance-like lilt and the final Presto whizzed by at a breathtakingly fast speed, virtuosically propelled ahead by the string players’ excellent articulation of their rapid notes.

Loading image...
The Australian Chamber Orchestra
© Charlie Kinross

In the Symphony no. 36 in C major, “Linz”, the gentle siciliano character of the second movement was particularly pleasing, while in the Trio section of the Menuetto, an exquisite duet by solo oboe and bassoon serenaded each other with warm and nasal sounds, perfectly illustrating the typical tone and phrasing capabilities of early wind instruments.

A selection of Ballet Music from Idomeneo followed after the interval, well played but perhaps ill-fitting in the hierarchy of this concert, which finished with the three-movement Symphony no.31 in D major, “Paris”, the earliest composition in the programme, with running scales and cascading arpeggios sounding like exploding fireworks, the reliably warm and clean sound of natural horns provoking attention in the middle movement and a finale full of cheeky syncopations.

Elegantly directed and performed with unified concentration, this concert expressed flirtatious, capricious and boisterous energies. What would have made it a completely satisfying experience, would have been taking more time to repose and enjoy the gentle charm that is also part of Mozart’s music.