The Australian Chamber Orchestra is undoubtedly one of the nation’s strongest classical music “brands”, although trying to pin down the forces that make up this protean ensemble is difficult. The core group consists of fourteen full-time and four part-time musicians, but in a recent concert series there was as few as seven, while in the program under review there were more than 50 players involved. The complementarity between the intimacy of the Andreas Scholl concert earlier in the month, and Tuesday evening’s much more extrovert event was also evident in the two programs: where the former focused on music of the 18th and 20th centuries, in the latter we heard two late 19th-century masterpieces.

Steven Isserlis © Tom Miller
Steven Isserlis
© Tom Miller

The ACO usually perform without a conductor, which enhances the chamber-music feel of their performances. Such is the level of communication between the players that there are virtually never any issues of coordination when the small core group is playing. Matters become more tricky as the numbers increase – it is no coincidence that the 19th century saw the conductor become more and more indispensable as composers demanded ever more elaborate orchestral forces. The strategy adopted by the ACO in this case marked a reversion to an earlier practice, whereby the leader of the orchestra assumes the dual role of player and director. This was how in the early 19th century Johann Strauss Senior conducted his wildly popular waltz orchestra, and how François-Antoine Habeneck performed the Beethoven symphonies in Paris.

In practice, Richard Tognetti (in his usual position, but on a slightly raised dais) was not able to play every note of his part as well as coordinate the wind and brass entries. In Dvořák’s Cello Concerto in B minor, he mostly played during the main tutti sections, but when the violins had an accompanimental role, he occupied himself with directing with his bow. The results were generally fine, although in the third movement there was the odd moment of less than perfect coordination between the soloist and the woodwind. On the subject of the wind instruments, it was interesting to note that period instruments were used, the most noticeable of which were the wooden flutes. These had a more rounded sound quality and there was beautiful blend between the horns and flutes in the second movement of the concerto. However, friends less advantageously seated found it harder to hear the winds (older instruments typically having less carrying power), especially when pitted against 30 modern string instruments. Only occasionally was this an issue for me: during the alternating passages between the strings and the woodwind in the second movement of the Brahms, the latter sounded disproportionately weak, and they were occasionally overwhelmed in the finale of the symphony.

Steven Isserlis must be one of the most expressive musicians active today. Seated squarely in the centre of the platform (in the place normally occupied by the conductor), he was an absorbing visual study, with every emotion of the music recorded in his facial expressions and his bodily gestures. His performance of the Dvořák concerto conveyed a sense of utter oneness with the music. One didn’t find oneself thinking about technique or phrasing, masterful though both were; rather, I felt that this was how the music ought to sound. The encore, Piatigorsky’s transcription for solo cello of Prokofiev’s March from the Music for Children, was delightfully wry and acerbic (and a nice change from what seems to be the default choice for cellists – a movement from one of Bach’s cello suites).

Brahms’ Symphony no. 4 is one of the peaks of the symphonic repertoire, and received the usual imaginative ACO treatment. The sublime opening theme for strings, with its falling thirds answered by rising sixths, was phrased off more noticeably than I had ever heard it before, an interpretation which gained force after we heard the much straighter/more subdued version of the same theme at the onset of the development. Unless I’m very much mistaken, there were even some portamento effects (sliding between notes rather than cleanly transitioning between them), something endorsed by advocates of historically informed performance of this repertoire, such as my colleague Neal Peres da Costa. The main theme in the third movement had lots of verve and articulation, and the leader/director’s passion at times led to him leaping into the air. Luckily, the seemingly inevitable collision with his desk partner never eventuated. The final Passacaglia was utterly wonderful: variation 2 had snap, while the melodious variation 5 was given such swagger that it sounded like a Hungarian Rhapsody. The change of atmosphere at the subdued variation 11 was perfectly judged, and the brass chorale in variation 15 was most uplifting. The piece came to an exhilarating end with Tognetti in the “normal” conductor’s position.