Beyond what size does a chamber orchestra just become an orchestra? With 60 musicians involved in their Mahler and Sibelius programme, the Australian Chamber Orchestra was certainly stretching anyone’s definition of ‘chamber’. Even still, these are smaller forces than is customary for tackling music by these composers. So why this seemingly hubristic enterprise on the part of the ACO? After all, performances of Mahler’s symphonies in particular have not been in short supply in Sydney in recent years: the complete cycle was recorded live by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra during Vladimir Ashkenazy’s recent tenure, and individual symphonies are programmed with some frequency.

Australian Chamber Orchestra © Jon Frank
Australian Chamber Orchestra
© Jon Frank

Artistic director Richard Tognetti acknowledged that the orchestra “may not employ an earth-shattering sonic heft”, but argues that they bring consideration of “balance, clarity and texture [to their] exploration of larger orchestral works”. The two symphonies chosen (Sibelius' Sixth & Mahler's Fourth) are in very different ways classically oriented works, restrained in comparison to other parts of their respective composer’s outputs. That said, something like Mahler’s achingly beautiful Kindertotenlieder, with its still more restrained orchestral palette, would have been an even more logical choice.

Before the announced program, a quintet of musicians appeared on stage to play a short Serenade by Sibelius. This was intended to showcase the new acquisition by the ACO’s Instrument fund, a US$1.35million Guarneri violin dating from 1714, which has been entrusted to Rebecca Chan. As soloist, she demonstrated the violin’s especially luscious tone on the G string, with her colleagues substituting for the full orchestral forces. Whether this was a part of earlier concerts on this tour or not, I cannot say; it reminded me of the very different publicity accompanying the acquisition of another Cremonese instrument some years ago, when a miniature chocolate violin was placed on every seat in the Opera House Concert Hall.

As is usual in the ACO’s concerts, the violin and viola players were standing, which necessitated higher risers than usual for the seated wind instrumentalists. Perhaps because of these alterations in spatial geography, there were some balance issues for me. From my position (centre of the stalls), the woodwind sounded somewhat more distanced than was ideal, especially given the luminous sound from the expanded string section at the beginning of the Sibelius Symphony. Even the big brass crescendo at the end the first movement sounded less overwhelming than it does in the recordings with which I’m familiar. There were plenty of delightful moments such as the shadowy string moments towards the end of the second movement with the woodwind spot colours, and the frenzies in the fourth movement which were attacked with gusto. Nonetheless, at times I found myself yearning for fuller sonorities, even in this modestly scored work.

The size of the sound bothered me less in the second half of the concert: perhaps it was a question of having acclimatised to the dimensions of the group. However, some of the interpretative decisions in Mahler’s Fourth seemed questionable. For example, the end of the three-bar sleigh-bell-infused introduction to the first movement is marked ‘Etwas zurückhaltend’ (somewhat pulled-back), but the huge ritardando employed here felt excessive. (In the programme, the first page of Mahler’s score was reproduced in facsimile – interestingly, all that is notated here is ‘grazioso’ – graciously.) Moreover, the free use of tempo rubato (expressive pulling and pushing of the underlying tempo) in the first part of this movement was again out of character in what is surely one of Mahler’s mostly classically shaped expositions.The development portion, by contrast, was very steady. There were plenty of details that emerged with a new clarity because of the reduced forces – some cello counterpoint beneath a woodwind repeated-note figure, for instance – and the usual communication between the musicians usual in the ACO was evidenced by their grins after a particularly reckless descending run.

For this program Tognetti (wisely) abandoned his usual role of leading from the front row of the violins and conducted with his hands. He cut an expressive figure on the podium, although his movements were exaggerated so that at moments he looked like a contorted puppet master. The only time he played was in the second movement of the Mahler, where he took on the role of the spectral fiddler Freund Hain (= Death) on a scordatura (retuned) instrument. The seraphic string-only opening of the third movement had some lovely nuances, and a later wind trio also was beautifully blended. Unfortunately, the intonation started to go a bit sour towards the end of the movement, and given that it runs directly into the finale, there was no opportunity to re-tune. The soprano, Kiera Duffy, was sweet sounding rather than particularly resonant in this final movement, so her life was made that much easier by the reduced number of musicians.