Take my breath away . . . sometimes

BACH VIOLIN CONCERTOS

Australian Chamber Orchestra

Hamer Hall

Sunday April 2 and Monday April 3

Johann-Sebastian-Bach

A congenial combination of Haydn and J.S.Bach provided the fodder for Richard Tognetti’s ACO concerts over the weekend.  Playing to indubitable strengths, the ensemble presented three Bach concertos: that for solo violin in E Major, BWV 1042, which some of us may know better as a keyboard work; the overwhelming D minor Concerto for Two Violins, BWV 1043, fixed firmly in this backward-gazing mind by the inspired recording of David and Igor Oistrakh from the early 1960s; and the Concerto for Three Violins BWV 1064R, reconstructed from the Three Keyboards pseudo-original, but by whom I’m not sure – there’s an edition by Christopher Hogwood but the arranger could easily have been someone less familiar/eminent . . . like Wilfried Fischer (probably not).

Interwoven with the concertos came some smaller gems.  Tognetti began Sunday afternoon with the Preludio of the Violin Partita in E Major which he himself arranged, taking the semiquaver-stacked solo himself and leaving the ACO strings to pizzicato an accompaniment that struck me as having its basis in the organ-fronting Sinfonia score to the composer’s Cantata No. 29 where Bach indulged in yet another piece of recycling.  In the middle of the program’s second part, room was made for principal cellist Timo-Veikko Valve to perform the Sarabande from the E flat Suite straight, without any accompaniment.

The pair of Haydn symphonies were early: No. 22 in E flat, called The Philosopher for no apparent reason, and No. 27 in G Major.  Both were written within 15 years of Bach’s death but have little relationship with the Bach scores, except as possible commentaries on why the senior composer’s work fell into neglect as a less contrapuntally fixated generation took over the reins.

The Preludio lollipop worked as a throat-clearer, I suppose, its non-stop onward rush a test of left-hand dexterity in negotiating scales and arpeggios interspersed with some interest-raising leaps; Tognetti dispatched it with brisk authority.  More solid matter emerged in the solo concerto and on this wider canvas you could appreciate the violinist’s manipulation of what looks so four-square on the page.  Taking Eliot to heart, Tognetti does not cease from exploration but treats Bach’s bare bones with flexibility – not just inserting ornamentation but investing those long phrases with something close to rubato, just not as obviously following the wait/catch-up process that the term entails. In fact, it’s not just a case of being flexible, but more a pliable quality and, if the distinction seems non-existent, the only explanation I can offer is that you can hear that Bach’s solo line is being manipulated but it comes across as unforced, as part of the performer’s approach: not trying it on but treating the linear contour with respect for its organic elements.

In this work, Tognetti was more able to demonstrate this originality of approach, something that amounts to affection for the composer’s product informed by a fine array of dynamic shades and juxtapositions where the soloist could take familiar passages and re-animate them with unexpected differentiations of attack, in particular eschewing the sawing heftiness of many interpretations that emphasize the composer’s harmonic insistence rather than the chromatic subtleties that come between those solid tutti passages.   He might have been following a similar pattern in other works, but this was one where harpsichordist Joao Rival swapped his harpsichord continuo for a chamber organ in the Adagio movement, supporting the momentarily placid ACO strings – nine violins excluding Tognetti, three violas, three cellos and Maxime Bibeau’s bass.

Later, principal violin Helena Rathbone joined her artistic director for the second solo part in that urgent Double Violin Concerto and again the central players eschewed heft for sinuosity. as in the long intertwining exposed passage in the first Allegro from Bar 58 to Bar 84 or in the light application of two double-stop passages in the finale where both players pulled back and exposed the orchestral movement rather than churning out their chords fortissimo.

It would be difficult to find a more affecting interpretation of this work’s central Largo where the pliability of tempo was a shared quantity between Tognetti and Rathbone but the players eschewed that  non-stop mimicry that you expect to hear in these pages.  By contrast, the last Allegro showed the ACO at its most exhilarating, with plenty of bite in attack and lots of brisk work near the nut in a reading that contrasted the linear clarity of its precedent with a fast-paced aggression.   An odder unexpected touch came with the first movement’s concluding tierce de Picardie where probably every other version I’ve heard is content to leave the violas with their F natural.

The last performed of these concertos, that for three violin soloists, brought Satu Vanska to the front as third-line specialist.  This sounded the most virtuosic of the program’s offerings with loads of exposure for each principal either in solo, duo or trio format. with some mini-cadenzas thrown in.  Both outer movements came across with loads of vim and gusto, all concerned obviously enthusiastic about the score’s emotional spaciousness, even in the plangent B minor Adagio.  Vanska eventually enjoyed the limelight in a rapid-fire moment of sustained exposure during the Allegro assai but the principal trio impressed chiefly by dovetailing and curvetting around each other with eloquent elegance.

The Haydn G Major Symphony in three brief movements brought some super-numeraries to the stage in braces of oboes and horns.  Not that this slight piece tests anybody except in clarity.  Unfortunately, the horn work generated an occasional blooper which, in this transparent score, makes more of an impact than usual.  Despite the repeats, this symphony is quickly accomplished and, if the speeds were on the rapid side, that’s fine as there isn’t much ground for meditation.  The E flat Major work sticks out from the ruck by asking for a pair of cor anglais rather than oboes; Michael Pisani from the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and visitor Dmitry Malkin from the Jerusalem Symphony made a well-matched pair, offering antiphonal interplay with the Sydney Symphony’s Ben Jacks and Stephane Mooser  on horns in the initial ceremonial Adagio. The ACO itself bounded through the work’s three following segments with as much finesse and dedication as they had shown throughout the program, but I have to confess that the second movement’s Presto repeats  made for dutiful listening rather than the totally elevating experience that previous program components had brought about.