Sunday’s concert by the Australian Chamber Orchestra was the single Sydney date on its current Slava, Rodrigo & Beethoven VII tour, an uncharacteristically parsimonious stopover in the group’s home city. This was the more to be regretted, given that it was one of the outstanding programmes given by the ACO in recent memory, starting well and getting better and better with each successive work. Whereas the Melbourne events began with a world première by Gordon Kerry, concerts in Sydney and elsewhere opened with Ravel’s chaste arrangement of part of his piano suite Le Tombeau de Couperin. From the burbling woodwind lines in the Prélude, the orchestra captured the freshness of this Baroque tribute to perfection. Their Forlane was appropriately quirky although even here the opportunities for a more burnished tone were not passed up. The Menuet was less whimsical, but within the matte colouration one could appreciate the delicately nuanced phrasing. In the concluding Rigaudon, the pizzicato accompaniment in the central section had real personality, complementing the orientalist figures from the oboe and other winds. The main thematic material was delivered with dash and gusto on each of its appearances.

Richard Tognetti © Paul Henderson
Richard Tognetti
© Paul Henderson

Slava Grigoryan was the epitome of relaxed virtuosity in the greatest of guitar warhorses, Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez. His very unfussiness might have made his achievements seem less breathtaking than they were, although there was no shortage of genuinely appreciative acknowledgement from both public and his fellow performers at the end. In the beloved second movement the impressive Dmitry Malkin demonstrated a delicious range of colours during the cor anglais solos, while Grigoryan indulged in extended meditative arabesques. At one point the performance verged on the world of flamenco, with the guitarist striking his foot sharply on the podium twice, adding to the Spanish atmosphere. The third movement was given a highly disciplined account from soloist and orchestra, with plenty of colour and variety on the side.

The Sydney Opera House Concert Hall is generally not the best space in which to hear small ensembles, and for preference I would normally opt to attend the ACO in the more acoustically rewarding City Recital Hall. Given the position of a microphone near the guitar, it is reasonable to conclude that Grigoryan was subtly amplified to reach the back of the auditorium. Long before the second half, however, the ear had adjusted to the space.

Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony has, if anything, been too popular in Sydney in 2016: the ACO was the fourth different orchestra to programme it here this year, after Anima Eterna Brugge in January, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra (under Ashkenazy) in February, and most recently the Australian World Orchestra (under Stanley Dodds) in September. Could the ACO overcome the feeling of satiety that overexposure can induce, even in the case of an unquestioned masterpiece? The answer was an emphatic yes. Mimicking the progression of the concert as a whole, the ACO gave us a rousing rendition which peaked at the end.

The slow introduction to the first movement flowed beautifully, punctuated with enormous accented chords. If anything, it might have been a touch on the fast side, but quicker tempi are not untypical of leaner, smaller groups as opposed to the behemoth-like symphony orchestras. In the main body of the movement (Vivace), the orchestra sounded more dogged than jovial, but the music was delivered with undeniable verve, as the unusually high number of frayed bow hairs at the end testified. For the first few variations of the slow movement, Richard Tognetti moved to the conductor’s position in the centre of the group, only returning to the concertmaster’s desk when the first violins were called into action. The gradual build-up in sound across the variations was well calculated. The contrasting major-mode sections here felt very quick, but the melodic lines created were beautifully sculpted as a result. In the third movement, the main scherzo idea had lots of swagger, and the trios (again rather fast) were full of delightful dynamic contrasts.

Good though the performance had been until now, it was the finale that took it to another level entirely. For once, all the problems of the venue were entirely forgotten, thanks to the thrilling intensity of sound the players drew from the bucolic theme. In terms of atmosphere, it was like a rambunctious last dance of a rural celebration. No one held back: the commitment and communication across the orchestra was total. In my five years of attending ACO concerts, they have never been other than interesting, with their inventive programming choices putting many others ensembles to shame. However, this finale served as a reminder of how good they can be when performing core repertory, and the sheer quality of their playing more than anything else is what continues to draw the crowds.