With the artistic director Richard Tognetti overseas for a considerable portion of the year, the Australian Chamber Orchestra has been led by a number of different figures in recent concerts. This time it was the turn of famed young Russian virtuoso Ilya Gringolts to take the helm. The publicity for the concert all focused on one of the four composers featured on this programme: Paganini. A name to conjure with, the incarnation of virtuosity, the violinist about whom more legends are circulated than facts: Paganini was the perfect testing ground for Gringolts’ credentials.

Ilya Gringolts
© Tomasz Trzebiatowski

In the opening CPE Bach Sinfonia, the discontinuities beloved of the composer were well managed so as to sound different without derailing the overall momentum. A particularly dramatic effect was achieved at the re-entry of the low strings late in a second movement which had been entirely about the violins and violas to that point. The orchestra captured the winsome charm of the third movement perfectly.

But this was only ever going to be a curtain-raiser: all eyes were on Gringolts as he moved centre stage for Paganini’s First Concerto. In a move which would have had authenticity purists nodding in approval, the piece was played in the original key of E flat major, with the soloist using a scordatura instrument (each of the strings was tuned up a semitone). For the soloist, nothing changed: the fingers fell in the same places on the strings as if it were in D major, even if the sound was a notch higher. For the orchestra, everything had to be refingered, as the strings coped with the less resonant key. Bernard Rofe’s arrangement made the absence of woodwind instruments largely immaterial.

Dressed in a shirt with a lively central pattern, and with sleeves half rolled up, Gringolts turned the concerto into something that was at times close to an improvisatory gypsy display piece. This was a persuasive reading of a work whose main raison d'être is as a showcase for extreme virtuosity. Gringolts is a commendably unspectacular player with a rock-solid technique – I’ve never seen the tricky thirds passages in the first movement played with such unshowy dexterity before. His technical prowess found full outlet in the cadenza, which had the expected arsenal of extremely high registers, double-stops (including the tenths dreaded by most players), harmonics, etc. Excess was the point here, and the postponement of the resolution of the trill just brought this home explicitly to the audience. Not all the double-stop harmonics were quite immaculate, but it didn’t matter – the overwhelming impression was of magnetic bravura. The orchestra filled its mostly supporting role sympathetically, clearly delighting in the whole experience.

After the interval, Gringolts re-emerged as one of the team, clad in the concert blacks worn by the rest of the orchestra, although his role as soloist was not yet finished. Vivaldi’s concerto grosso saw him pitted him against the front desk of the cello section opposite him. Timo-Veikko Valve and Julian Thompson matched their leader semiquaver for semiquaver. It wasn’t all frenzied passage-work: in the first movement there were some pleasing pairings where one cello was plucked and the other bowed (to my knowledge an interpretative decision not based on any indication in the sources). This textural imagination continued in the second movement, where the first half saw the violin supported by pizzicato celli, switching to arco for the second part. The final movement had a lovely dance-like quality to it.

Amazingly, the best was yet to come in the shape of the Bartók’s late Divertimento for Strings. Where the orchestral sound had earlier been restrained by classical propriety or the need to accommodate the soloists, here it felt unleashed and earthy from the outset. Within the first movement there was plenty of variety, such as the gorgeous theme for a group of soloists and other places where we dipped into very subdued worlds in contrast to the muscular tutti. The opening of the Molto adagio second movement was beautifully subdued, evoking a sense of inexorable creeping. In the middle section huge forcefulness alternated with tenderness, with the players’ commitment to both ends of the dynamic spectrum palpable. The exuberant finale was delivered with panache worthy of the concert as a whole.