The stage of the City Recital Hall was unusually full for the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s concert on Tuesday night, their first Sydney stop on a tour featuring works by Mozart and Brahms. The core contingent of 15 or so string players was augmented to about 50 musicians by means of additional strings and a full roster of woodwinds, brass and percussion. Many of these players have prestigious orchestral posts overseas, and had presumably returned for the Australian World Orchestra concert a few weeks previously. The increased numbers enabled the orchestra could make one of its relatively rare incursions into 19th-century repertoire for Brahms’ Third Symphony. Even with their expanded forces, the ACO fielded far fewer players than a typical performance of the work by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra might, but such was the commitment and energy from the performers that no one could have felt they were being sonically short-changed.

Richard Tognetti © Gary Heery
Richard Tognetti
© Gary Heery
At the beginning of the first half, director Richard Tognetti announced that the Orchestra was to perform the Overture to The Magic Flute as a sort of curtain-raiser to the Sinfonia Concertante, with no real break between them. The ACO delivered a vividly coloured account of the Overture: the off-beat accents were dramatically pointed, the woodwind solos sat beautifully on top of the string backdrop, and the few portentous brass passages were rich and round. While the ACO can (and usually does) perform Mozart with far fewer players, the fullness of sound was welcome, and came at no loss of their usual immaculate precision. This wasn’t mannered or restrained Mozart – rather, it was a rumbustious account of this familiar masterpiece, and the better for it.

The fan-like arrangement of strings for the first half was unusually symmetrical: first and second violins on the edges flanking divided viola forces, with the cellos sitting slightly further back in the middle. Sharing centre stage for the second work were the two soloists – Tognetti and violist Christopher Moore, with the latter walking into position during the closing bars of the Overture. Although not a ‘period’ group, the ACO has adopted the restrained use of vibrato from the historically informed performance (HIP) tradition, and also the practice of having the soloists join in during the tutti sections.

The Sinfonia Concertante, which Mozart might have called a ‘concerto grosso’ had he been writing a generation or so earlier, is structured so as to showcase both soloists separately (often the viola repeats a phrase just stated by the violin) and together (there are plenty of passages in parallel thirds and sixths). In the first movement, my impression was that Tognetti was holding back a little so as not to dominate the viola; by reason of its higher register and more penetrative sound quality the violin tend to cut through the texture much more readily.

However, as the concerto proceeded and the ear accustomed itself to the viola’s very different sound, Moore seemed ever more impressive: his opening solo in the second movement was if anything the warmer of the two. What was remarkable was the almost psychic level of coordination between the two when playing together – tempo flexibility, tonal shadings, even speed of trills seemed perfectly matched. With Moore leaving to become Principal Violist at the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra next year, this may be his soloistic swansong with the ACO. If so, this partnership with Tognetti certainly was a wonderful advertisement for the benefits of playing together for years.

Few symphonies surge forward at the start as does Brahms’ Third, and the ACO caught the spirit perfectly at the beginning: the sound of the opening theme was burnished, but one could feel the dynamism arising from the fundamental clash of major and minor forms of the tonic F triad, a tension that is only resolved at the end of the finale. However, if the first theme was everything I could have wished for, the quieter transitional section which followed was pulled back in tempo so much that the impetus was lost; the final upward curling figure from bassoon and flute before the second theme almost failed to finish. This same pattern of surging and almost stagnating was repeated throughout the movement, destroying its essential unity for me. This was the more regrettable, as the second movement was masterfully played – gorgeous colours in the opening, beautiful meditative wind passages, and eventually a glorious warming of the sound. The third movement, a popular favourite for its surging tunefulness, was good although it never felt that it fully soared. The tempo changes continued in the finale, leaving the impression of plenty of excitement and colour, but little sense of architectonic coherence. A special word of commendation is due to Timothy Jones (of the London Symphony Orchestra) whose horn solos were a particular delight.

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