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CD: Buywell

Celebrating 20 Years Together
see end of review for details
Australian Chamber Orchestra/Richard Tognetti (violin, director)
ABC CLASSICS 476 3304 [69:15 + 66:40]
Experience Classicsonline

I am in something of a quandary regarding this CD set. It is released to celebrate twenty years of the hugely successful partnership between the Australian Chamber Orchestra and their talented and charismatic leader and artistic director Richard Tognetti. The dilemma is this; there is a wealth of fine music on these two generous discs, reasonably recorded and sparklingly performed but, with the exception of a few stand-alone works these are all excerpts from larger compositions. Who apart from ACO/Tognetti groupies wants just one movement of a Beethoven Symphony or a Bach Concerto? For me it added to the frustration, a brilliant performance promised more to come but instead we have a lurch to a completely different work. Likewise, the programming veers from period to period in a seemingly random fashion. Clearly this is meant to reflect the laudable diversity of the ACO’s programming but here it feels like a rag-bag. I would have preferred a set with twice the number of discs but half the amount of repertoire (perhaps there are licensing issues at work here) organised either chronologically by composition or more interestingly by performance date - that way the blossoming of the partnership could have been traced.

The performances are taken in the main from live concerts of the last decade coupled with commercial CD releases which are not dated. It is impossible therefore to ascertain quite how many of the twenty years of the association is covered here. According to the liner notes the ACO consists of 17 permanent string members who are augmented as the repertoire demands. Clearly the Symphonies here are played by considerably larger numbers of performers but there is a very consistent stylistic approach across all the music. Technically the orchestra are beyond reproach and play with the highest distinction; ensemble, intonation and attack are superb. Take for example track 3 - the 3rd Movement Allegro from Bach’s Double Violin Concerto. Tognetti is brilliantly partnered by Helena Rathbone as they toss off the tricky finger-snagging passages which a clarity and élan rarely achieved at the tempo they choose. But therein lies my other main problem with this disc. Tognetti clearly has a preference for a driven style which I feel underlines the undoubted virtuosity of himself and his colleagues but at the price of rarely letting the music breath or smile. No doubt it makes for some adrenalin fuelled concerts and I can imagine it is very exciting live but on CD the result is unrelenting. Also, once you strip this away as a defining characteristic I’m not sure that I heard much in the way of subtle musicianship. Track 9 on CD 1 - Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence - Allegro con brio is a good example of what I mean. This piece was written originally for a String Sextet and then adapted later by the composer for a symphonic string section. The liner notes do not make it clear if this is played by a sextet or the expanded 17 players of the ACO (it sounds like the latter). Either way they attack it ferociously - technically superb this does not sound like a Florentine souvenir - all sunshine and mellow warmth - to me. There is a marvellous sextet version by the Camerata Lysy on Claves (now deleted) that was the technical equal of the ACO but with added Mediterranean glow. Likewise, the Siegfried Idyll - track 5 CD 1 - starts beautifully but once the tempo ups it feels frenetic. As mentioned the programming does not help with this impression of driven music-making. The first four tracks are of “quick” movements. The fourth track - the Vivace from The Scottish Symphony by Mendelssohn is an interesting example. In purely timing terms alone Tognetti is only a shade on the faster side of average. But somehow the result feels brusque and unforgiving - the music does not bubble and charm.

Part of the blame must lie with the recording which is detailed but tends towards the glassy and harsh once dynamics build. As live recordings they are acceptable but in no way demonstration class. Interestingly some of the most successful performances are the two slow movements taken from violin concertos which are studio recordings. Here Tognetti’s flowing tempi and unmannered phrasing allows the music to be simple and lyrical as it is surely meant to be and is aided by a considerably mellower recorded balance. Not surprisingly, the ACO have taken on board current trends in authentic performance practice. Although they play on modern instruments textures are kept clean and light, vibrato used judiciously but again this feels more that it is a stylistic coat being worn for that moment rather than being a defining characteristic of the band. The two contemporary works are of greater interest simply because of their unfamiliarity. Certainly Smalley’s Footwork (Birthday Tango) suits the robust ACO approach although it feels as if the music cannot make up its mind whether it wants to be a fun encore or something altogether more serious. Sculthorpe’s Irkanda IV again benefits from a studio recording and is altogether more atmospheric (this recording has been released by Chandos as part of an all-Sculthorpe disc CHAN 10063) - certainly one of the most convincing overall performances on these discs. Irkanda is an Australian native word meaning “remote and lonely” and was written in 1961 in memory of Sculthorpe’s father. The bleak lamenting quality of the music is well caught and Tognetti’s playing of the solo line is superb. Altogether more convincing music making than on much of the rest of this set. The Grainger that completes the second CD is seriously comic in the way that only Grainger can be. Hickox on Chandos with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra go for a more chaste version but I rather like the ACO’s primary colour performance which underlines the eccentricity of Grainger’s “ramble”. Likewise the encore at the end of the first CD literally plays to the strengths of the orchestra and their director.

Recent years have seen an upsurge in this type of small orchestra/large chamber group. They tend to be characterised by the fusion of a chamber group co-operative sense of music making while the greater number of players allows them to widen the range of music they play. It is a little disingenuous for the liner notes to imply that it was a “Tognetti innovation” for the players to stand - the Guildhall Strings were doing that from their foundation a good nine years before Tognetti joined the ACO in 1989! - or that they are particularly unique as an ensemble. Do not get me wrong the ACO is very very good indeed and their commitment to touring and varied programming is beyond reproach. But I suspect most people buying this set are converts already. As a promotional tool I can see it has its uses, for the dedicated collector it serves no function and for the occasional dipper into classical music the programme has no shape or overall theme to tempt them.

Only for Australian Chamber Orchestra aficionados.

Nick Barnard

Track details
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770 - 1827)
Symphony No.5 in C minor - Allegro con brio [6:23]
Antonio VIVALDI (1678 - 1741)
Concerto in B minor for 4 violins Op.3 No.10 - Allegro [3:36]
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750)
Concerto in D minor for 2 violins BWV1043 [4:19]
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809 - 1847)
Symphony No.3 “Scottish” - Vivace non troppo [4:26]
Richard WAGNER (1813 - 1883)
Siegfried Idyll [17:46]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770 - 1827)
Violin Concerto in D major Op.61 - Rondo [9:34]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833 - 1897)
Chorale Prelude Op.122 No.7 “O Gott, du frommer Gott” [6:04]
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750)
Violin Concerto in A minor BWV1041 - Andante [6:01]
Pyotr Il’ych TCHAIKOVSKY (1840 - 1893)
Souvenir de Florence - Allegro con brio e vivace [7:13]
Cuckold, Come Out of the Amery [3:06]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756 - 1791)
Symphony No.40 in G minor KV550 - Molto Allegro [7:27]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797 - 1828)
String Quintet in C major D956 [15:22]
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750)
St John Passion BWV245 - “Ach. Herr, lass dein lieb Engelein” [1:46]
Joseph HAYDN (1732 - 1809)
Violin Concerto in C major Hob.VIIa:1 [5:22]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770 - 1827)
Symphony No.8 in F major Op.93 - Allegro vivace [6:43]
Roger SMALLEY (b. 1943)
Footwork (Birthday Tango) [8:24]
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685 - 1750)
Sonata No.2 in A minor for solo violin BWV1003 - Andante [5:49]
Peter SCULTHORPE (b. 1929)
Irkanda IV [10:41]
Percy GRAINGER (1882 - 1961)
Blithe Bells (A free ramble on Bach’s “Sheep May Safely Graze”) [4:19]

Richard Tognetti (Artistic Director and Lead Violin); Helena Rathbone ( violin - CD1: track 2 & 3); Satu Vänskä & Elizabeth Jones (violins - CD1: track 2); Anthony Halstead (conductor - CD1: track 6); ACO Voices (CD2: track 3); Australian Chamber Orchestra
Recorded: CD 1: 1 - The Arts Centre Hamer Hall, Melbourne 18 September 2006 / 2 - City Recital Hall Angel Place Sydney 17 November 2004 / 3 - no details given / 4 - Huntingdon Music Festival Mudgee 4 December 2002 / 5 - The Arts Centre Hamer Hall, Melbourne 18 September 2006 / 6 - no details given / 7 - Huntingdon Music Festival Mudgee 4 December 2004 / 8 - no details given / 9 - Perth Concert Hall 5 July 2006 / 10 - Perth Concert Hall 15 November 2006 / CD 2: 1 - Perth Concert Hall 1998 / 2 - Sydney Opera House 27 May 2002 / 3 - City Recital Hall Angel Place Sydney March 2000 / 4 - no details given / 5 - City Recital Hall Angel Place Sydney 15 November 2008 / 6 - Perth Concert Hall 15 November 2006 / 7 - no details given / 8 - no details given / 9 - Huntingdon Music Festival Mudgee 1 December 2004



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