Celebrating 40 Years Australian Chamber Orchestra/Richard Tognetti
rec. 1996-2015 ABC CLASSICS 481 4571 [71:45 + 72:20]
History suggests that the Australian Chamber Orchestra (ACO) work best as a live act; their reputation is built around plaudits such as “the best chamber orchestra on earth” (The Times) and “if there’s a better chamber orchestra in the world today, I haven’t heard it” (The Guardian). If you’ve seen them in action, you’ll probably understand why; not only are they supremely gifted, individually and as an ensemble, but their playing and demeanour convey an energy, unanimity and excitement which makes each concert a special occasion.
The ACO’s recorded legacy, however, can tell a different story. Too often, while they invariably hit the right notes, something seems to be missing from the music. Removing the frisson of live performance can expose an art that is more meretricious than it is meaningful, with the commitment and dynamism now nothing more than empty overdrive. Some distinction of course needs to be made between the ACO’s live and studio recordings, and other critical factors, but more on that anon.
The current release is a 2-CD set marking the ACO’s 40th anniversary, which occurred in 2015, and coincidentally the 25th anniversary of their leader/director Richard Tognetti’s involvement with the orchestra. It is a collection of live and studio recordings, covering the period 1996 to 2015, all made by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). To that extent, it’s a fairly limited conspectus in terms of both the ACO’s performing history and discography. The ACO have recorded quite extensively for other labels, and it’s a pity the ABC didn’t see clear to arrange with these labels for the inclusion of selected excerpts. More importantly, it could be argued that the ACO’s most notable recording achievements have been in the studio with other labels and, perhaps more pointedly, when those recordings have included key personnel other than the ACO establishment. I refer for example to the early Respighi disc conducted by Christopher Lyndon-Gee (Omega/Vanguard), Sir Charles Mackerras’s Martinů (Conifer), Stephen Kovacevich’s Beethoven (EMI), and more recent liaisons with Angela Hewitt (Hyperion), Daniel Müller-Schott (Orfeo), Sharon Bezaly (BIS), Emmanuel Pahud (EMI) and Pieter Wispelwey (Channel Classics).
The programme of the current set is arranged chronologically by recording date, beginning with Peter Sculthorpe’s Irkanda IV, the title taken from an Aboriginal word meaning “a remote and lonely place”. Composed in 1961 upon the death of Sculthorpe’s father, and inspired by words
of D H Lawrence (“A sun will rise in me. I shall slowly resurrect, ...”), Irkanda IV is a haunting and brooding work, sometimes anguished and agitated, written for solo violin, strings and percussion. (Versions
also exist for string quartet, flute quartet and flute quintet.) Made in the composer’s presence, this studio recording is a powerful and knowing
account, Richard Tognetti the soulful protagonist, guiding us through the work to its final but uneasy peace.
To migrate then from the landscape of Irkanda IV to that of The Lark Ascending may
seem an inspired idea, but if anything only emphasises how out of its element the Vaughan Williams sounds. A live take from the Sydney Opera House, Tognetti rather over-eggs the solo part, his inflections more bush-folksy than English pastoral. If the Sculthorpe was a knowing performance, this one indubitably isn’t.
Neither is the next pairing of works an ideal marriage, but not on performing grounds. Recorded at the same concert, the Allegro marcato from Astor Piazzolla’s Aconcagua concerto for bandoneón is followed by Soviet-born Australian composer Elena Kats-Chernin’s Torque, the common factors being the tango and prominent parts for classical accordion and piano. The Piazzolla comes off splendidly, the almost erotically-charged atmosphere at times emphatic, at other times sly, seductive and whimsical, driving the piece inexorably to its end. Kats-Chernin, who gets a lot of air-time in her new country, writes in a contemporary idiom that doesn’t draw blood, but then again, neither does drip torture. Torque
is a piece about society’s obsession with the need for a car, and does have its effective moments; my problem is that
Kats-Chernin says musically all she has to say in about half the time of the Piazzolla, but her piece lasts twice as long. If her
point about car obsession is that it can also be exceedingly tedious, it’s certainly well made.
The ACO then dispatch the Bach double violin concerto with almost stopwatch
efficiency, Helena Rathbone joining Richard Tognetti on solo duty. I might
have been more engaged had I not discovered that the movements have been
treated as if they were separate works, with lengthy gaps between them. This I
can only presume is the formulaic approach which sometimes occurs when broadcasters rather than specialist recording companies produce this kind of material. Thankfully, the first disc ends well with the ACO in full flight on the finale of Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence, an encore played with all the brilliance we expect.
The second disc begins with Rose, written by Egyptian/Australian composer Joseph Tawadros for his mother. Tawadros plays the oud in this very effective, catchy, and culturally diverse piece which certainly doesn’t outstay its welcome. Then follow three staples of the classical repertoire. The ACO are perhaps ideally dimensioned for Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll and they bring it off beautifully, even if audience noise is more intrusive here. Still, I’m sure Cosima would have been more than delighted to see the ACO lining the stairs of the Wagner home, even if she might have found all the “g’days” a little disconcerting! For the finale of Brahms’ first symphony, though, the ACO are possibly less well-dimensioned, even if Tognetti in his liner note argues that Brahms himself expressed a preference for the size of orchestra heard here. Maybe playing of the ACO’s quality would have confirmed Brahms’ conviction, but then if he’d heard the modern BPO, VPO, etc, he might well have joined the size-matters club.
The set concludes with a complete 2015 live recording of Mozart’s Jupiter, which has recently been reviewed on this site as part of a Mozart late symphony collection. I have to say this performance lays bare the good and not-so-good of the ACO and its current direction. The orchestra plays with all its usual exuberance and virtuosity, and
doubtless those present were wowed. But as a playback experience, it is troubling to say the least. Tognetti’s thesis that the ‘really raucous’ audiences of Mozart’s time make it absurd to believe that he wrote his last symphonies to be performed ‘in a sort of sacramental way’ translates into playing that is bristling with a kind of confected energy. Powerfully accented chords disfigure the melody of the Andante cantabile, their repetition and predictability so tiring that you feel sure Mozart, or any composer worth their salt, would have found them complete anathema. Then there are the dynamic
contortions of the third movement, and other ‘touches’ throughout the symphony that come across as pure affectation (and some other terms I’m not allowed to use). Whether or not Tognetti is correct about audiences in Mozart’s time, modern audiences are not raucous and we don’t need his experimentation with such a great work and such an important cultural body to (not) prove his point. As it stands, and I’m sure I’ll not be alone, his interventions simply mean that I never want to hear this performance again.
So there you have it. A timely celebration of the ACO’s first 40 years, though not as extensive in time or scope as you might wish to validate their reputation. Arguably, this selection is without the ACO’s best recorded achievements, and if anything it illustrates almost a period of stasis following their initial emergence as a world-class chamber orchestra. The brashness and boldness over their first decade and a half was something of a necessity, but for better or worse, they still sound as though they’re trying desperately hard to impress. After all the positive
vibes they’ve received over the past 40 years, you think they might have matured beyond the exhibitionist stage to concentrate on making the great music they’re clearly capable of. On the evidence presented here with their director of the past 27 years, it’s more like they’re having a prolonged adolescence.
Track Listing CD 1: Peter SCULTHORPE (1929–2014)
1. Irkanda IV [10:51]
Richard Tognetti (violin)
rec. January 1996, Eugene Goossens Hall, ABC Ultimo Centre, Sydney Ralph Vaughan WILLIAMS (1872–1958)
2. The Lark Ascending [16:31]
Richard Tognetti (violin), Roland Peelman (conductor)
rec. live 20 July 2002, Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House Astor PIAZZOLLA (1921–1992)
3. Aconcagua: I. Allegro marcato [7:50]
James Crabb (classical accordion), Tamara-Anna Cislowska (piano)
rec. live 12 March 2002, City Recital Hall, Sydney Elena KATS-CHERNIN (b. 1957)
4. Torque [14:57]
James Crabb (classical accordion), Tamara-Anna Cislowska (piano)
rec. live 12 March 2002, City Recital Hall, Sydney Johann Sebastian BACH (1685–1750)
5.–7. Concerto in D minor for two violins, BWV1043 [14:22]
Richard Tognetti and Helena Rathbone (violins)
rec. October 2005, Eugene Goossens Hall, ABC Ultimo Centre, Sydney Pyotr Il’yich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840–1893)
8. String Sextet in D minor, Op. 70 ‘Souvenir de Florence’: IV (Allegro con brio e vivace) [7:14]
rec. live 6 July 2005, Perth Concert Hall CD 2: Joseph TAWADROS (b. 1983)
orch. Joseph Tawadros and Richard Tognetti
1. Rose [4:13]
Joseph Tawadros (oud), James Tawadros (req), Richard Tognetti (violin)
rec. November 2006, Studios 301, Sydney Richard WAGNER (1813–1883)
2. Siegfried Idyll [17:55]
rec. live June 2010, Hamer Hall, Arts Centre Melbourne Johannes BRAHMS (1833–1897)
3. Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 68: IV (Adagio-Piů andante-Allegro non troppo) [15:58]
rec. live 18 September 2006, Hamer Hall, Arts Centre Melbourne Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756–1791)
4.–7. Symphony No. 41 in C major, KV551 ‘Jupiter’ [34:15]
rec. live 3 October 2015, City Recital Hall, Sydney