Brilliant, even with the dross

RESPIGHI, BRITTEN & VASKS

Australian Chamber Orchestra

Melbourne Recital Centre

Tuesday June 4

                                                                 Richard Tognetti

These smaller concerts that the ACO gives in the Murdoch Hall of the Recital Centre are something of a gamble.   While the main series in Hamer Hall attracts respectable numbers, those mounted in the more acoustically clear space can be depressing affairs; not from the performers’ point-of-view, I hope; nor from the experiences of those patrons that come along to something that falls out of the usual season; but definitely to those of us who can see and hear splendid music-making being given to a half-full auditorium, as was the case last Tuesday.

No soloist was being touted, neither the ACO’s better-known visitors nor the recherche artists that the organization brings to our attention.   And your casual concert-goer isn’t going to be stimulated in the hip-pocket by the trifold promise contained in this particular night’s title.   By this stage, though, you’d think that concert-goers with any discernment would be aware that this company can be relied upon to make the mundane into the extraordinary . . . well, most of the time.

As a tuning exercise, Tognetti and his ten colleagues opened with the Alcina Overture by Handel, followed by a sequence of seven dances from that opera that ended in a brisk Tamburino with Maxime Bibeau’s bass and Julian Thompson’s cello helping out as percussion, the whole company  concluding the set with a machismo-flaunting ‘Hey!’  As an introduction, this pointed to the night’s approach: all-out vehemence tempered by rigorous ensemble work, probably best exemplified in a sarabande where personnel cut in and out of proceedings with seamless fluency.

This Handel bracket lacked the original’s oboes doubling violins and also the usual harpsichord underpinning to give the rich vein of melody some spikiness.   Still, the group avoided Hamilton Harty country with a precisely judged cutting edge to their attack, even if the two-cellos-plus-bass made for an amply solid bottom line.   Every so often, you might have wished for more weight from the first violins – all three of them – but occasional imbalance seemed a small price to pay while witnessing this zestful performance.

Another filler came with Meale’s Cantilena Pacifica, originally the slow final movement to the composer’s String Quartet No. 2 of 1980 where the book was emphatically closed on Meale’s leadership of the Australian contemporary music world by his reversion to tonality   –   a movement of the times but one that produced little of much value, particularly in this instance.   The piece is a violin solo, articulated with clear dedication by Tognetti while his companions provided an endless chain of supporting triplet arpeggios.   Nevertheless, a sensitive rendition offers little compensation for the piece’s aimlessness and eventual monotony, the prevailing texture breaking up only close to the end, by which stage the listener has given up expecting anything but dated blandness.

On this occasion, the Respighi was the Ancient Airs and Dances Suite No. III, one of the fertile composer’s most worthwhile exercises.  The four movements are presented to performers as very open plan, with some dynamic markings and differentiations in articulation, e.g. pizzicato.   But any interpreter has plenty of room to move to colour what are bare-boned pages.  So Tognetti made a large feature of accelerandi in the opening Italiana, giving an interesting tidal motion to three pages in which many organizations aim for the easily achieved saccharine.

The ensemble made gripping material of the following Aria di corte, this suite’s most chameleonic element.   We had the opportunity to admire the timbre of viola Elizabeth Woolnough, moonlighting from the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and shining in the opening and closing strophes of this movement.   Her sombre solos stood in excellent contrast with the sprightliness of the Vivace sections and the rolling rich chords of the central F Major Lento segment – a testament to this body’s uniformity of address and sustained delivery.

Respighi’s Siciliana found the ACO once more in accord during the movement’s driving central climax between bars 39 and 56 with some bracing triple stops from both sets of violins.   This ferocity continued in the concluding Passacaglia where each section gets a moment in the spotlight.   Here, the group’s recovery rate was shown to fine effect in the change from the powerful block chords on display from bar 24’s Energico to the bounding Vivace that breaks out eight bars later.  Further, the crackling unanimity evident in previous movements came to the fore in these concluding pages to riveting effect.

Peteris Vask’s Viatore for 11 solo strings (and hence tailor-made for this ensemble giving the score its Australian premiere) is dedicated to Arvo Part, and it shows.  The voyager of the title could be you, could be me, could be an extra-terrestrial; whichever it is, the travelling is conducted along straight lines.   Vasks offers us two theatres of action: one depicts the universe, the eternal which is depicted by high violin arpeggios and brings to mind Ives’ The Unanswered Question; the second outlines the voyager’s experiences on earth and consists of full chords beneath an aspirational melody.   These two elements alternate, the voyager theme rising in content and power before the score fades into the supernal.

You find it easy to engage with this work.    Its content is simple to imbibe, especially as the elements offer no challenge to instant comprehension and Vasks eschews the need for linking passages.  This night’s audience clearly engaged with the work which enjoyed a performance that brought out its passion and delicacy.   If I thought it over-simple and wanted a faster progress for the voyager, that’s probably a sign of crotchety dissatisfaction with a contemporary urge to under-intellectualize the process of composition, leaving the few goodies you have on the surface and thereby worrying the listener that the cosmic or spiritual depth proposed isn’t very profound at all.

Britten’s Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge followed attacca, doubly welcome for its brilliance of construction and sheer personality.   Here was an exhilarating tour de force from each member of the group involved: the elan of the top three violins during the Aria Italiana, a white hot fervour radiating from the Funeral March, Tognetti’s idiosyncratic solo during the Bouree classique, an impossibly fast Moto perpetuo, and an extraordinary fusion of Fugue and Finale.  It’s a young man’s work, jam-packed with scintillating flourishes which found an obvious response from this remarkable set of musicians.

I wasn’t sure about the personnel required in the Chant; I made a loan of my mini-score 50 years ago, never saw it again, of course, and can’t verify the facts.  But it seemed to me that three violas are required in this movement; hard when you have only two on board. But that was the only questionable question mark over a demonstration of expertise the like of which I haven’t ever seen exercised on this sparkling piece.   If you missed it, too bad, but I’m sure it will linger in the memories of those of us lucky to be witnesses to a display of the ACO in superb form.