Melbourne Digital Concert Hall
Friday July 10, 2020
I’ve heard this ensemble once before but in a more expanded form, I believe. Friday’s proceedings gave us a Reader’s Digest ARCO with only a string sextet at work, performing a five-part program of composers whose life-spans intersected and who all fell into the special interest area of this organization. But it was a tad unsettling because some of the program content could have gained from more string weight, particularly in the upper two lines, while the focal piece might have fared better if it had been left alone, unexpanded, in its original form.
The ARCO co-artistic director, Rachael Beesley, headed the performer list, supported by co-violinist Anna McMichael. The group enjoyed the services of two violas – Katie Yap and Simon Oswell – while Natasha Kraemer‘s cello was reinforced by double-bass Emma Sullivan. As for the music, the night led off with Mozart’s F Major Divertimento K. 138 which was paired with Franz Xaver Richter’s Sinfonia a quattro in B flat Major – written some 30 years before the athletic Mozart and comparatively uninspired. This evening’s title work referred to Movement V of Beethoven’s Op. 130 String Quartet, the one where he had to write a manageable alternative to the original concluding Große Fuge. While you can tolerate dilations like the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s full-scale re-scorings for string orchestra of well-known quartets, this version with the added viola and double bass weight skewed your attention.
Moving definitely into the Romantic period, the group gave us Rossini’s Sonata No.1 in G Major which asks for a pair of violins, a cello and a double bass. You usually hear it from a string orchestra without violas but here it worked functioned easily with four players. The night ended in Mendelssohn’s early symphony No. 10 in B minor: one movement but with two viola lines, which at last sort of explained the necessity for both Yap and Oswell.
It’s always a delight to hear late Beethoven, especially the string quartets, but the Cavatina from No. 13 is puzzling in its own right. Only 66 bars long and following a magnificently dense Andante and a clear-as-light tedesca, it presents as a semi-sophisticated ternary lied with a remarkable economy of material and expressiveness. Taken by itself, it makes less an impression of spiritual hiatus than it does in its linear position during the complete work. Still, even if it made a less-striking-than-intended appearance here, the players did it justice.
For one thing, they adopted performing practice from Beethoven’s era. In her preliminary address, Beesley told us they were aiming for a period sound by utilising certain techniques, not to mention employing gut strings. One of these devices was a liberal application of portamento which came into its own here; for example, in the first violin’s emerging out of sotto voce at bar 24 with a cadential theme, the downward and upward 5th leaps gained extra warmth by being given slight portamento. The piece is top-heavy with luminous moments, one of the more prominent being McMichael’s surge to prominence six bars from the end with a critic-silencing pure delivery before the final consoling fade-to-benevolence.
At the program’s centre, the Cavatina stood out for various reasons, not least for its emotional depths in pretty light-hearted company. More tellingly, it was the only piece of pure chamber music on offer, despite the additional instrumental weight; nearly everything else could have done with more players, like the Mozart frivolity. Along with its companions, the D Major K. 136 and B flat K. 137, the short F Major score has become almost as popular as the later Serenade in G – certainly with performers. You could find unexpected pleasures in this interpretation which removed a lot of the flashy sharp-edged quality that you get from plenty of modern ensembles. Indeed, the tempi of the outer movements appeared to chug along, totally dissimilar to the crispness and bounce you expect from a body like the Melbourne Chamber Orchestra or its glittering big brother. Yet what a delight to hear clearly the two lower lines which are always drowned out.
In the opening Allegro, I liked Beesley’s subtle unbalancing of symmetry in bars 44, 46, 48 and 50 which sat in easy complement with her chugging lower support. But even more striking was the caressing approach from all concerned to the simple lyrical beauty of bars 81 to 86 – finely phrased and timbrally balanced. You could find further agreable moments in the following Andante like the nice deviations from metrical regularity between bars 9 and 12, as well as in a mirroring point to this during the movement’s second half, although I was sorry to find that the group did not repeat this segment. On to the concluding Presto and we were back in the jog-trot territory of the opening; nothing wrong with that – in this playing context – but you forfeit some of the swashbuckling bravado of passages like the last episode, not to mention the sparklingly busy main theme of this rondo which only really disappointed in a slushy passage near the last bars.
Richter’s sinfonia is set out, like the preceding Mozart, in quartet form and it also could have gained from more heft. Its initial Spiritoso rushes up hill and down dale without showing much for the energy involved; not a memorable tune anywhere in the work’s fluent motion after the opening arpeggio pattern. It seemed like good exercise work for the violins but your attention was only momentarily arrested by some suspensions. The Andante with muted upper strings wove a pleasant sextuplet/triplet web above a pizzicato bass line although in this work I wasn’t upset by the lack of a second-half repeat. Richter’s Presto finale followed the opening movement’s lead in having no memorable melodic material to relieve its chains of scales and suspensions. Admittedly a short burst of unexpected modulations in the second part pulled you up short for about 10 seconds and the whole score enjoyed an exemplary execution. Yet, this was another divertissement; sadly, set alongside Mozart’s brilliant burst of adolescent inspiration, it paled into padding, particularly if you compared the two works’ finales.
Responsibilities seem more evenly divided between participating personnel in Rossini’s early sonata where – eventually – everyone gets a share of the limelight. A product of the composer’s 12th year (the following Mendelssohn symphony was written when that composer was 14), this work has grown in popularity, although playing it as written in quartet form is rarely done, most organizations choosing to flesh it out with extra bodies to three of its lines. You think for a while that the opening Moderato is going to be an uninterrupted gift for Violin 1 until you reach bar 45 where McMichael’s generous timbre enjoyed the chance to shine for 20 bars. Here also, the players did not repeat the first half – disappointing because the performing accidents would have been useful to hear at length, given that this sonic ambience would have been more familiar to Rossini than the flamboyance of a group like I Musici or I Solisti Veneti. Kraemer worked with deliberation through her solo starting at bar 125, even if it turned out to be a shorter version of McMichael’s earlier exhibition spot. By the end of this segment, you had a pretty fair awareness of this ensemble’s ability to oscillate between a biting attack in solo work and a more round-edged delivery in ensemble passages.
The plain Andante eventually springs to life at bar 19 where the first violin enjoys a skipping passage all-too-reminiscent of Dvorak’s Humoreske; not the Italian composer’s fault, of course – he came first – but it’s a welcome jeu d’esprit in a repetitious and predictable set of pages – see bars 32 to 47 – before Rossini revisits his first melody. The Allegro that finishes this sometimes-remarkable piece of juvenilia includes another cello solo of 8 bars, preceded by a double-bass solo of the same length, both welcome break-outs for Kraemer and Sullivan who had no hesitation in pushing themselves to the front. As an entity, the sonata sounded more relaxed and easy-flowing than in the hands of others determined to find a dormant Paganini in its amiable progress, all too often delivered with steel strings and lashings of Latin flair. And it strikes me that the sonata gains considerably from more friendly treatment like the ARCO’s in both personality and warmth, however fuzzy.
Some idiot once told me that all of Mendelssohn’s early symphonies – 12 of them – have two viola lines. Because I’m trusting and lazy, it’s taken a while but this performance helped to lay that myth to rest: only Symphonies 9, 10, 11 and the Sinfoniesatz have two sets of violas. The ARCO sextet made a fine showing in the initial Adagio with an energizing clarity during the chromatic slide in bars 22 and 23. But the whole effect was undermined by the lack of violin body strength in a score that, as it moved forward, showed that it wasn’t chamber music by making more deliberate, even cruder statements than in the smaller-framed format.
The tempo of the work’s main Allegro proved to be slightly variable in execution, close to off-balance towards the end of the development if recovering when not involved any further with working at exploring material. But the playing reached its highest point of achievement in the brief piu presto, an invigorating 30-bar concluding burst with a bustling power across its active top four lines. At only one movement long, calling it a ‘symphony’ is a bit of a stretch; even Webern managed two. But Mendelssohn knew enough about juxtaposition and thematic eloquence to construct a convincing musical scenario. Still, it was a pity that what we heard was necessarily limited in its power to involve.
It’s a welcome sight, watching even a small fragment of the ARCO performing; on the job in this dire time for artists across all fields. The orchestra’s approach and products are far removed from most other ensembles who exercise their communal virtuosity without concern for what is of prime interest to musicians like these who dedicate their art to resurrecting original timbres and styles. With these re-creators, you hear – even in constrained circumstances like those obtaining last Friday night – a strong semblance of what composers like Mozart and Beethoven might have expected to experience themselves, if probably more accurate in articulation, more refined in phrasing and dynamic balance. Thanks to this sextet, we enjoyed a positive remembrance of things past – warm, slightly gruff, gemütlich.