Lead, kindly Gringolts


Australian Chamber Orchestra

Concert Hall, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Monday February 13, 2023 at 7 pm

Ilya Gringolts

A tad bitty, this opening Brisbane gambit from the Australian Chamber Orchestra for 2023. Missing from the line-up were artistic director Richard Tognetti and associate Satu Vanska, but the band enjoyed some amplification – an extra viola (Carl Lee), a pair of new cellists (Charlotte Miles and Eliza Sdraulig), a mate (Axel Ruge) for bass Maxime Bibeau, and some violinists I’ve not come across before (I think!): Anna Da Silva Chen and Tim Yu. Also, by an arranger’s quirk, timpanist Brian Nixon came to prominence during the night’s big feature: Bruch’s G minor Violin Concerto.

Control of these forces fell to Ilya Gringolts, last heard with the ACO five years ago when he performed Paganini as we should have been hearing it. On this night, he took the soloist’s spot for the Bruch warhorse as well as for a splendidly cogent reading of Frank Martin’s Polyptyque, In more workmanlike mode, he took over Tognetti’s usual place as concertmaster-director for the last of Mendelssohn’s early string symphonies, the one-movement No. 13 in C minor; a fresh commission in Australian writer Harry Sdraulig‘s Slanted; then finished off proceedings through Grazyna Bacewicz’s Concerto for String Orchestra of 1948.

Naturally enough, popular acclaim went to the great-hearted German concerto, arranged for smaller forces by the ACO’s artistic administration manager Bernard Rofe. All the wind parts vanished – 2 each of the woodwind, four horns and two trumpets – their lines relocated to any stray strings; as you might have expected, this meant a loss of timbral variety and an absence of ambient gravity which can actually weigh down considerably this score’s progress. Further, the absence of a sizeable group changed the concerto’s flavour; if you knew the work (and that would have described quite a few patrons), you would have missed some tutti passages memorable for their abrupt bite and stridency, let alone the Vorspiel‘s haunting initial wind chords.

Nevertheless, Gringolts gave us a memorable account of the solo line, accommodating to his reduced background so that full ensemble passages came across with less heft than usual; for instance, the first explosion at bar 11 after Gringolt’s second cadenza was a watery intimation of the real thing. But you learned to compensate as the Vorspiel surged forward with its amalgam of rhapsody and respectability. The absence of timbral punch mattered less in the central Adagio but by this stage Gringolts had absorbed most of our attention with an impeccable demonstration of how to perform the score’s technical hurdles with absolute confidence, while simultaneously expounding the concerto’s rich romantic paragraphs.

Unlike other brilliant interpreters, Gringolts refrained from generating a seamlessly pure line with its contours neatly enfolded; when the action heated up, you could hear some preparatory scrapes as double- and quadruple-stops were hit hard – but not so much in the energetic Allegro last movement where the temptation to add extra gutsiness to the main theme’s thirds and sixths is too great for many an executant to resist. Both soloist and orchestra made as much as necessary with dynamic contrasts, while the whole reading kept you involved by its rhythmic intensity in the outer movements and through the waves of tensile string fabric in the second movement.

Messiaen stole several marches on his contemporaries with regard to putting his Christian/Catholic faith into musical practice, but Martin’s late creation for violin and two string orchestras scales some religio-emotional peaks with just as much sincerity and brilliance of utterance as the French master. His Polyptyque was inspired by a series of miniatures in Siena that depicted various stages of the Passion. In his six movements , Martin lets the solo line represent Christ and a Narrator, in the best Bach fashion; hence also, the two orchestral forces. It only seems like yesterday that adventurous choirs would present the Swiss writer’s Mass for Double Chorus (now almost a century old!) as the last word in modernity and improbably hard choral writing. You would hardly say the same about Polyptyque which is couched in that stringent, athletic language with which some of us have become familiar through the chamber works. Any appearance of a work by Martin is still remarkable, if not as noteworthy as it would have been 30 or 40 years ago.

As at the best of concerts, this performance was a revelation because of a happy combination of expertise and inspiration. After seven live audience performances, this penultimate one in Brisbane came to us well-honed and holding no surprises for all concerned. But the fulcrum of this success emerged through Gringolts’ sympathetic outline of the central role: in turn jubilant, mournful, aggressive, transfigured. Of course, the composer’s realization of specific images veered closer to the physically illustrative than anything in Messiaen’s work. For instance, the opening movement depicting Palm Sunday set out the turba in action – not wholly elated, but busy with suggestive undercurrents – while the violin wove a clearly defined path into the city.

Martin did justice to Judas with an active cadenza for the soloist, packed with self-circling energy like a man newly-arrived in a prison cell and finding no relief, even when the orchestras enter sombrely to underline the traitor-victim’s isolation. To end, the composer contrived a matched pair: the judgement before Pilate and Via crucis, prefacing a continually aspiring image of Christ’s glorification which is achieved by simple means, certainly more mobile than the Louange a l’immortalite de Jesus and less constipated than Majeste du Christ demandant sa gloire a son Pere. In these pages, Gringolts led us on an all-too-brief journey, remarkable in its concentration of output as it moved beyond a kind of remote tension to a radiant, soft triumph. Obviously, an experience to treasure.

The evening started with the Mendelssohn Sinfoniesatz, the last of the teenage composer’s essays in the form. While being happy to observe the near-adult grappling successfully with formal exercises, I’ve never gone overboard about any of these early efforts, least of all this effort with its thickly applied imitative passages of fugato. But then, I feel the same discomfort when Schumann starts fugueing in the Piano Quintet’s final Allegro, or even when the piano kicks off a mini-fugue in the last movement of Bartok’s Piano Concerto No. 3 (bar 228). But, if nothing else, this piece set the physical scene: Gringolts leading an all-male first violin group, Helena Rathbone opposite him at the head of an all-female second violin bevy; pairs of violas either side of centre-stage (this is one of the string symphonies with two viola lines); pairs of cellos in the rear centre, Timo-Veikko Valve and Julian Thompson at the front, of course, with the two females seated in the second row; and the two basses bringing up the real rea, one behind each group.. In any case, the Mendelssohn served its purposes of clearing the sinuses, loosening bowing arms and establishing a communal sound.

Better followed with Sdraulig’s new work. I can’t quite grasp the rationale behind Slanted, even if the composer explains it in two ways: the first, in terms of the actual music’s shape, its architecture as the 18 variations elide into one another; then, as a social commentary on the biases with which we’re all infected these days. Not ignoring these descriptor/explanations, you tended to become less concerned with the underpinning dialectic and more enthralled by the composer’s felicitous writing: expertly shaded, clearly defined in its allocation of responsibilities, gripping in its athletic first part and subtly atmospheric when the tension eased rhythmically for the later stages. It reminded me of several all-strings scores (well, of course, given the timbral potentialities) but carved out an individual stature by means of its remarkable definition, like a solidly sculptured torso. In some ways, it recalled the Frank Bridge Variations but with less glitter: Britten with balls.

Bacewicz’s famous Concerto rounded out this night effectively; to my mind, more so as a demonstration of the ACO’s finesse and ardour in attack than for the ground-breaking qualities of the score itself. As a standard-bearer for Polish modern music in the grim late 1940s, Bacewicz struck out on a progressive track although, in a wider European context, this work is not ground-breaking. Nevertheless, the composer’s vocabulary presents as strong and flinty with its neo-classical sprightliness and linear lucidity at a time when the great ruck of writers were still stuck in a post-Romantic morass. Gringolts headed an interpretation that found grace, even elegance amid the spiky polyphony; I heard only one suspect early entry , probably from the second violins, in this composition’s expertly-contrived delineation. More memorable was the rank and file’s vivid reaction to their guest leader’s never-failing enthusiasm.