Wednesday 13th February (City Recital Hall, Sydney)

What is it about Richard Tognetti and the Australian Chamber Orchestra? How do they seem to break every rule in the book and yet get it so right, with the audience cheering and whistling in appreciation?

This concert saw the unlikely pairing of Australian composer Brett Dean’s new work Electric Preludes with a Mozart violin concerto and two Classical symphonies. On the program, it rather felt like it wouldn’t work, surely the Dean – scored for ‘violectra’ and amplified string orchestra – would come as too much of a shock. Surely there should be something to bridge the musical gap of 200 years between it and the other works. Add in that new compositions don’t always seem to be Richard Tognetti’s kettle of fish, and it is a decidedly odd combination. Yet the whole thing worked. The mirror image of symphony and concerto on either side of the interval balanced beautifully, and Electric Preludes nestled comfortably in between Haydn and Mozart.

I’m not the greatest fan of Brett Dean’s works, finding his Viola Concerto in particular rather grating. However, this concerto for electric violin was clever, with an incredibly well thought-out dialogue between soloist and ensemble. The six-stringed violectra, which could very easily have become merely a vehicle for showing off a whole lot of effects, was handled thoughtfully. At times, it was allowed to take on the sound of a rock guitar, but at others it was soulful and enchanting, almost devoid of its electrical effects and drawing closer to its acoustical cousins. To start the second movement, Tognetti gently blew across the strings, creating what can only be described as an audible shiver. While Tognetti posture and gesture suggested he still wasn’t quite at home with this music as he is with Mozart (understandably so), the ACO as a whole we superb in both their intimate phrasing and spectacular energy.

Mozart’s Concerto No. 3 in G major, the ‘Strassburg’, was equally impressive in artistic flair and downright energy. I was a little unclear as to why Tognetti chose to play his solo part hunched over the music and yet the tutti passages from memory striding round the stage, but aurally both were stunning. Cadenzas in this concerto – Tognetti’s own – seemed perhaps a little out of character ‘Mozartly’ speaking, but were played with such love for the violin and the melodic line that it didn’t seem to matter. The cadenza to the second movement, in particular, drifted away into the upper reaches of the violin with wonderful ease.

The two symphonies – Haydn’s No. 49 in F minor ‘La passione’ and Mozart’s No. 25 in G minor – framed the two concertos beautifully, showing that the ACO is just as stunning when front and centre. It is hard to know what is more enjoyable, the energy of fast movements (where they are always prepared to sit on the quicker side of tempos) or the moments in slow movements where they sigh and breathe as one. This group seems to have such a consistently innate sense of phrasing because it is intrinsically linked to physical movement, and while I’m sure that some of it is for show, they have also created a highly individual sound in the process. It occasionally felt that the winds (oboes, bassoons and horns in the Classical works)  weren’t quite as clear on the beat as the strings, but this was of little consequence in the overall adrenaline rush that the ACO and their music bring.

Radio National interview with Tognetti, Dean and sound designer Bob Scott

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