Competent but bland


Australian Chamber Orchestra

Hamer Hall

September 4 & 5, 2016


                                                                                Elisabeth Leonskaja

Here was a puzzler.  The content was fine, typical ACO fodder: the Capriccio sextet, Mozart’s Jeunehomme, and the Beethoven Op. 127.   Both string works were arrangements by principal cello Timo-Veikko Valve, who knows what he’s about.  But the Monday night performances left a sense of dissatisfaction after all three works were completed.

Rather than launching into the Richard Strauss opera prelude with the full ACO involved. Valve began with the piece as the composer wrote it: two violins, two violas, two cellos pouring out a mellifluous harmonic concordance.   And so it continued up to Figure 2 where the tremolos begin in all lines and the rest of the players were brought into the discussion.   Fine: a proper place to do the transformation, swelling the texture  .  .  .  except that in the actual event it jarred and you had to adjust abruptly to allow for the shift where the sinuosity of the original sextet was lost in more solid sound-washes.

Later, Valve again cut back to the original format – at the point where the curtain goes up on Act 1, I think – bringing the corps back into play for the concluding bars.  The standard was what you’d expect from this body, for the occasion directed by Roman Simovic, concertmaster with the London Symphony Orchestra.   If the violin attack lacked the bite and uniform accuracy that obtains when Tognetti is at the front, that’s understandable, although this was the 7th out of nine performances of this subscription series program.

Elisabeth Leonskaja, soloist in the Mozart Piano Concerto No. 9, is a veteran performer with a pretty full calendar throughout the year, both as concerto soloist and as recitalist.  Her reading of the work could best be described as undemonstrative.   And that’s fine; who wants a full-frontal ego projected on this urbane, aristocratic music, some clown determined to make a difference by abrupt shifts in dynamic or slicing up defenceless passage work?   For those of us brought up on Ingrid Haebler, a certain reserve in the Mozart concertos is prized, particularly when it leads to readings of intellectual perspicacity and enunciative clarity.

But this Jeunehomme ambled.   Sure, the notes appeared in the right places and the mesh between soloist and orchestra was hard to fault –  except that the tuttis and the passages with exposed horns and/or oboes took on unexpected significance, compensating for a lack of intensity from the piano.   Leonskaja’s cadenzas came over with exemplary lucidity but infused with little personality; even that garrulously rapid concluding rondeau passed by without raising the performance temperature by much, missing out on any enlivening energetic kick.

The soloist gave us an encore: the Chopin D flat Nocturne, negotiated with sensitivity and a steady pace, yet deficient in sparks even during the right-hand decorative cadenza-spurts, the whole competent but emotionally bland: just the same as the concerto.

Valve returned to the lists with his arrangement of the Beethoven E flat Quartet, the later one in that key introducing the final five in the series.  And, after this hearing, it strikes me as being the one among them all that responds pretty poorly to expansion into string orchestra form.  The trouble with the first movement is that the developmental process is undramatic, non-theatrical, harmonically simple to follow; all you achieve by expanding the forces involved is a kind of middle-age spread.   Whatever tension exists between the lines is evened out, often smothered in plump amplitude. Further, the dynamic switches can’t strike home as hard when more than one player is involved.

The quartet’s second movement begins in even worse case; its opening theme’s A flat tonality might take some time to settle but there is precious little chromatic inflexion to disrupt its even presentation.  Yes, the complexities arise soon enough but even the slightly whirling activity generated by demi-semiquaver patterns turns to slurry when a group of four or five is playing them simultaneously.  The only pages that seemed to me to succeed here came at the third variation, Adagio molto espressivo, when the syncopated trills and violin lines’ imitations stopped, the key moved to E Major and the basic theme was transformed into a clear-speaking melodic line for the first violins with placid harmonic support.

The Scherzo worked best of all, despite some intonational slips among the violins.  The massive chord snaps at bar 60 – and, later, bar 330 – best illustrated how you could amplify the percussive power to be found all over the composer’s last works, and the Trio-Presto impressed for the rapid responsiveness of the ACO executants.   But the finale brought back memories of the initial Allegro where what interests you when four players engage in a clear-voiced argument becomes, in the string orchestra transformation, something more texturally diffuse, the modulations less striking, the driving animation verging on the mechanical.   Again, a generally well-accomplished performance but, instead of giving some insight into Beethoven’s compositional practice, the process seemed to summon up echoes of 19th century string serenades, or Grieg’s Holberg, even Elgar on an indifferent day.