Violin concertos without Richard Tognetti as soloist? This was perhaps the most surprising aspect of another inventive program from the Australian Chamber Orchestra. In the absence of the usual Artistic Director, Satu Vänskä took on the roles of leader and principal soloist. As director, she was much less visible than Tognetti, both literally (no elevated riser for her) and metaphorically (she did little formal conducting, except in the first piece), but the results were as polished as ever. However, in a program advertised under the title ‘ACO Soloists’, the main scrutiny would always be on her playing, and she emphatically seized her moments in the spotlight.

Timo-Veikko Valve © Gary Heery
Timo-Veikko Valve
© Gary Heery

Like Barber’s more famous Adagio, the Andante for Strings by his compatriot Ruth Crawford Seeger was originally a string quartet slow movement, subsequently arranged for orchestra by the composer (both orchestral arrangements date from 1938). Where Barber unfurls lengthy lines, Crawford Seeger uses short figures which pulsate briefly and fade, and the music is generated from the overlap of such figures. Both works follow a gradual ascent in register and dynamics, but instead of culminating in full-throated ecstasy, Crawford Seeger’s Andante has an outburst where all the previously dovetailing and imitative parts line up. This moment of rhythmic unison is shocking, and the music quickly falls away after. With Vänskä beating time with her bow throughout, the ACO delivered a persuasive rendition, each event beautifully shaped.

The Vivaldi concerto grosso introduced the three main soloists, although the first movement was mainly about the evocative orchestral writing (very similar texturally to the opening of ‘Winter’ from the Four Seasons) to which the legato violin part served as a foil. At times in the lively second movement, Vänskä was paired with violinist Glenn Christensen, but also with Timo-Veikko Valve (aka Tipi) on cello. The duets became a trio in the third movement, which was also memorable for the piquant dynamic contrasts. The finale, moreover, had a pleasant lilt to it.

Separating the two Baroque concertos was a newly commissioned work by James Ledger entitled The Natural Order of Things, inspired by the extraordinary life of the dedicatee, a Holocaust survivor. On a first hearing, I was particularly impressed by the sonic imagination of the composition: the sustained harmonics at the beginning resembled electronica, serving as a backdrop to a short-flighted melody in tenths. There were some traditional chordal sonorities, but these were smeared ever more by microtonal slides, suggesting the breakdown of order. A later theme had something of the swing of Ravel’s La Valse, another work which distorts its materials to suggest a world sliding into chaos. Late on, two violinists swapped to harmonicas, an intriguing new sonority to find at that point. Definitely a work worth a second hearing.

The finale of the first half saw Vänskä take on Locatelli’s Violin Concerto in D major, nicknamed the “harmonic labyrinth”. Locatelli is known to have inspired Paganini, and the appalling technical challenges here vividly illustrated their kinship. During the cadenza in the gigue-like third movement, there was a very pleasing nod to Paganini’s Caprice no. 20. The passages for the soloist felt deliberately excessive in difficulty and over-extended in length (much like the keyboard cadenza in Brandenburg no. 5). Vänskä gave a very spirited rendition of these with very few imperfections, and even moments such as the unpleasantly hoarse sounds at one point in the first movement were fully explicable by the weird combination of rapid string crossing and extremely high positions on the fingerboard at that point. Overall she demonstrated her formidable technique in double stops (including passages in 10ths) and busy passagework (in which she was joined in a cheeky duel by Ike See at one point). She truly captured the virtuosic élan of the whole and the warm ovation was richly deserved.

The arrangement of Debussy’s cello sonata was simply exquisite: composer Jack Symonds provided an inventive realisation of the piano part through carefully gradated use of string sonorities, treating each instrument as an individual colours rather than “simple sections”. It was an outstanding demonstration of how less can be more, with the solo cello never less than perfectly audible. Tipi was outstanding as soloist here, now using wispy colours, now a full-blooded romantic tone.

The uncredited arrangement of Mendelssohn’s String Quartet in A minor had both the virtues and the problems that come from expanding a quartet into an orchestral piece, although one felt less precious here than over the ACO’s amplifications of Beethoven’s late quartets. On the down side, some of the contrapuntal passages in the first movement became freighted down with the extra players. On the plus side, the return of the main material in the second movement gained in narrative sweep, and this full sound made for a very emotionally forceful climax. Wisely, the double-bass was not utilised in the fairy-music trio of the third movement. The tautness of rhythm in the finale was breath-taking, and the intermittent solo lines were invariably played with aplomb. Ultimately, this work, and the concert as a whole, was less about brilliant individuals, and more about brilliant individuals working brilliantly together.