Tepid response to insightful brilliance

BRAHMS & DVORAK

Australian Chamber Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Monday November 18  

 

                                                          Richard Tognetti

I used to think it was a Melbourne thing; some splendid interpretation that made your spirit soar would often be greeted by half-grudging applause – not just in the concert hall but also in the State Theatre.   You could take small consolation by noting that Sydney Opera House audiences lavish their plaudits with a complete lack of discrimination so that even the so-so gets a standing ovation.   But Monday’s reaction from patrons in Brisbane’s Concert Hall to a striking interpretation of the Brahms Double Concerto from Richard Tognetti, Timo-Veikko Valve and a lively expanded Australian Chamber Orchestra impressed me as noticeably pallid and lukewarm.   Not that I expected the place to explode with the brand of enthusiasm that greets even average Mahler symphony performances in this country, but a lethargic response to their brilliant efforts short-changed the artists concerned.

Matters got off to an unfortunate start.   Instead of the scheduled Jouissance by Andrew Ford – a 1993 scrap for two trumpets and vibraphone – we heard Fanfare for Neverland, a freshly-written piece for solo trumpet aired from the Concert Hall’s organ console by Visa Haarala, visiting from the Tapiola Sinfonietta.  The announcement of this substitution was  a near-sotto voce affair, the off-stage announcer working against audience hubbub and operating at a low dynamic level.  The Fanfare, one hopes, is referring to J.M. Barrie’s domain for Peter Pan, Tinker Bell and their contemporaries rather than the ranch established by Michael Jackson.  Regardless of the reference, this piece contained two prime elements: a staccato motif of repeated notes and large melodic arcs.   As far as I could tell, errors were minimal and the performer invested his line with a graceful bravura.

Ford’s Fanfare was followed immediately by eight of the ACO violins launching into Andrew Norman‘s Gran Turismo, a moto perpetuo with occasional oases.   Its effects proved unsurprising and efficiently suggestive of automotive regularity, which made it all the more surprising that Satu Vanska and Ilya Isakovich were engaged in beating time when the piece seemed to rattle past without much rhythmic subtlety.  Norman refers to the well-known video game and Italian Futurism (as well as Vivaldi somewhere in the mix) as launching-pads for his work.   That’s all fine; you can grant him the cars and probably the Venetian composer’s bright upper-string texture, but you’d be pushed to find traces of Marinetti or Balla; you might just as well have cited Kandinsky or Ken Done, except that Norman is determined on following an Italian spin.

It was racy, well articulated and the players sustained a balanced attack, the inner groupings coming over with effective clarity in this high-ceilinged hall.

Some years ago, Tognetti and Valve collaborated in the Brahms A minor Concerto for Violin and Cello – too long ago to remain in this concert-goer’s memory, I’m afraid.  They make an intriguing partnership, Valve observing a steady and fairly conventional path while the violinist’s track is, as expected, full of individuality.  You don’t get any Isaac Stern heftiness or Ferras sweetness in this upper-string solo reading; indeed, much of the detail comes over as inferential,  Tognetti rejecting the temptation to power through his own figuration while summoning up a powerful series of tuttis from his expanded and remarkably enthusiastic band.

For all that, the initial cadenzas that usher in the action made solid statements, especially when Tognetti and Valve combined from bar 50 for an urgent drive towards those massive quadruple stops that precipitate the opening movement’s proper start.   Later, Tognetti gave notice that this was not going to turn into your usual knock-’em-down burly display when the triplets really come into their own at bar 132 where his dynamic stayed consistent with the light woodwind/string support.   Both soloists made a steady but light-filled path through the movement’s development; when you look at the music again, so they should as moments of dynamic intensity are both abrupt and rare.  But time after time, the violinist startled you by doing little more than reading the score correctly, as in the luminous purity of a top high C in bar 341, the ascent to which showed this musician’s insight and self-control.

With the Andante, the most immediate impact came with the rolling fluency of the soloists’ attack on the first theme; here was a pretty brisk walking stride.  Tognetti slowed the pace for the change to F Major and both he and Valve observed my edition’s dolce direction with consistent fidelity.   Another striking passage came with the violinist’s double-stops five bars from the end – delivered without bathos but measured, both temporally and emotionally.

During the final Vivace‘s opening statements, both players reined in the customary tendency to punch out the rondo theme, investing it with a rare delicacy as a carefully calculated preface to the orchestral explosion.  And this set a sort of model for the movement, with Tognetti in volatile form but pulling back to outline the work’s contours with fine tracery in passages like the antiphonal interplay with Valve between bars 181 and 196.   Right through the work – not just this movement – you were aware of a consistency of both interpretative and executive intent so that this neglected score – in live, if not recorded, performance – became a consistent entity, intriguing in its progress for those of us who cherish it and also for others who come to it unaware of its stature as the high-water mark of Brahms’ essays in the concerto form.

By the time this expanded ACO came to Brisbane, it had performed the Dvorak Symphony No. 8 seven times in public, consequently, the prevailing accomplishment level proved to be exceptionally high.   If this night’s reading demonstrated one thing in particular, it came in the benefit of having a fully efficient and willing string corps at work.   As far as I could discern, Tognetti – conducting, not leading from the concertmaster’s desk – directed 16 violins in total, 6 violas, 6 cellos and 3 basses; roughly half the numbers used in the larger state orchestra concerts that feature Romantic scores.   But what distinguished this group was the collegiality of their output.  You might have wished for a smarter rate of response from the brass at certain stages but the woodwind choir – as individuals, duos or a composite body – pleased mightily for their polish and a responsiveness that you rarely experience when listening to better paid ensembles.

As with so many ACO performances, you could cherry-pick plenty of memorable moments from this Dvorak reading, like the vivid divisi viola passage in thirds during the first Allegro‘s development – a model of clear definition and phrasing shapeliness with a fine communal finish at the end of lines.   In this whole body, you found no passengers, only willing collaborators giving their best.  Yes, Tognetti encouraged the bouncy bucolic, while ensuring that his players eschewed any wallowing in lavish tutti passages; for instance, restraining the sustained brass chords and punctuation marks from drowning out the real action – strings and wind – in the first movement’s final pages.

At the Adagio, you were faced with a challenging approach in which the tempo proved to be very pliable.   Rather than setting a speed, getting a tad faster at the central piu animato, then pulling back to Tempo I for the movement’s final pages, Tognetti implemented a chain of accelerations and decelerations  to mirror the various changes in material and treatment that Dvorak employs in these heartfelt pages.  It all resulted in a mobile and mutable lyricism that stymied any hint of sentimentality.  The more fanciful among us might have traced some prefiguring of Janacek in the haunting violin and trumpet falling 4ths across the last bars – an out-of-the-blue wrenching bareness of utterance.

The Allegretto featured a splendidly balanced unison duo from flautist Sally Walker and oboist Roni Gal-Ed at the opening to the G Major Trio, and the (eventually) rollicking finale proved a delight with its rollicking woodwind and first horn trills first heard in bar 6 of the real action.   Just before the final sprint, Bjorn Nyman‘s clarinet gave us one of the night’s most exquisitely articulate solos at Rehearsal Letter P in the Dover 1984 edition, even more touching in its muted repeat.

Such details contributed to a near-ideal interpretation which achieved an deservedly positive audience response.   Tognetti has few podium tricks; he knows what he wants to achieve and reads a work’s musical flow with sense, so that what you hear is prepared to a fine degree of precision.  Added to his perceptions, he is dealing with hand-picked players, many of this concert’s imported players coming from recherche places – Orchestre Revolutionaire et Romantique, Opera Australia, Israel Philharmonic, Australian National University and the University of Sydney, the Norwegian Radio Orchestra alongside a few familiar faces from the Sydney and Melbourne Symphony Orchestras.  To the artistic director/conductor’s credit, this ad hoc composite gave us an exceptional musical experience across both of the program’s major constituents.