Australian Chamber Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall review ****


Australian Chamber Orchestra, Richard Tognetti (director), Pierre-Laurent Aimard (piano)

Royal Festival Hall, 3rd November 2017

  • Bach The Art of Fugue Contrapunctus 1 to 4
  • Mozart Piano Concerto 15
  • Shostakovich Two Pieces for String Octet
  • Tchaikovsky Souvenir de Florence

There is something truly thrilling about watching a group of string players, some standing, going hell for leather, as one, in a piece written exactly for them. Not to decry the full blown symphonic experience or the intimacy of the quartet but this is a special treat. Normally I see (and hear) this as part of a Baroque programme, normally Italian, or maybe a spot of Bach. Here we had a powerful modern ensemble.

Now we, for I was accompanied by the discerning ear and brain of Mrs TFP, that the wide expanse of the Festival Hall might swallow up the band but we needn’t have worried, as even from our perch astern, the sound was splendid. What was something of a shame is that the Hall was barely half full, a real shame since the ACO under Richard Tognetti, are world class. It was not as if the programme was challenging in any way. Even in the repertoire that we found less appealing, (I favoured the Shostakovich, Mrs TFP the Mozart), namely the Tchaikovsky, the finesse and control of the ACO was astounding. In those passages in the Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky which called for the strings to come together the unanimity of sound and movement (bows moving exactly in unison) was uncanny. Like one instrument.

Now I have heard the Art of Fugue performed by harpsichord, piano, string quartet and viol consort. All different, all fascinating as the simple theme is worked through with increasing complexity across the 13 completed, and 1 unfinished, fugues and, sometimes, the 4 canons. There is probably someone out there who has had a crack at Bach’s masterpiece on the stylophone. (I’d paid good money to see that). I gather that Richard Tognetti, who has led the ACO since 1990 (that presumably explains the discipline of playing on show), can sometimes get a little carried away with his arrangements. Not here. Now admittedly the first 4 of the contrapunctus are easy for even my ears to follow, as the meticulous theme is set out in the first, the dotted rhythm added in the second, turned upside down and filled out in the third and expanded and “sped up” in the fourth (here through the use of pizzicato). So I am not sure how much further they could go with this work, even with their technical mastery, but this was very interesting and flawlessly delivered.

I hate to admit it but the Mozart was beautiful. I don’t know the 15th Piano Concerto but I am well aware of Pierre-Laurent Aimard’s qualities, last heard by me in a majestic Emperor Concerto under Essa Pekka Salonen. You can hear how young Wolfgang, (well not so young by the time he wrote this), created the piano concerto form we know and, usually, love today. There is some lovely woodwind action, lots of sublime tunes and some fiendish piano playing, but all wrapped up in a charming bow. Once again the playing of orchestra and soloist was technically precise, but with no lack of emotion.

Now my prime reason for booking this concert, other than the reputation of the orchestra, was the Shostakovich piece since this, in my experience is rarely performed. Written in 1924, when DSCH was still a student, in memory of his friend Volodiya Kurchavov, there are obvious signs of the composer DSCH would be come. The Prelude is still rooted in the Romantic Russian composers of the late C19 but in the plunging response to the initial theme and with the high accompaniment to the second theme there is more modernity. The Scherzo second piece could easily have dropped out of a DSCH symphony from twenty years later. Sardonic, ghostly, then a comedy march, with all that thrilling dissonance.. A joy to hear and brilliantly executed by the eight musicians.

The Tchaikovsky was the (good) surprise of the evening for here Mr Tognetti’s arrangement of this sextet, for all his strings, really showed just how extraordinary their playing is. Don’t get me wrong, there are still plenty of passages in this near 40 minute piece, that annoy me intensely, it’s all just too show pony, but I did get sucked in I admit. Not sure it is the same Florence that I know and love but all that lushness and heart tugging yearning is hard to fight. And to be fair the ACO’s muscular approach dials down the sentimentality (though not the pony).

There isn’t much about Aussies that makes me jealous (actually that’s a lie, there is) but this orchestra is definitely one of them. I will add them to my list of must see orchestras/ensembles when they come to London alongside the Concertgebouw, Bavarian RSO, Leipzig Gewandhaus, Staatskapelles Berlin and Dresden, Chamber Orchestra of Europe, Spira Mirabliis, Ensemble Intercomtemporain, Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique, Akademie fur Alte Musik Berlin, Les Arts Florissants, Freiburg Baroque, Europa Galante, Budapest Festival Orchestra, Mahler Chamber Orchestra and, vain hope, Lucerne Festival Orchestra. Mind you with the LSO under Rattle we now have the best in the world, fact.


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