Australian Chamber Orchestra at Cadogan Hall [Richard Tognetti & Dawn Upshaw]

Caprice on Paganini Caprices (DEVA)
Cantilena Pacifica
String Quartet in F [arr. Tognetti]
Liederkreis, Op.39 – Mondnacht [arr. Tognetti]
String Quartet No.2 – Litanei
Der Tod und das Mädchen, D531 [arr. Tognetti]
Verklärte Nacht, Op.4

Dawn Upshaw (soprano)

Australian Chamber Orchestra
Richard Tognetti (violin & director)

Reviewed by: Andrew Morris

Reviewed: 1 September, 2012
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

Richard Tognetti. Photograph: Gary HeeryThe range of music presented by the Australian Chamber Orchestra is becoming a hallmark of its London appearances – this was its twenty-first concert in the capital – with a programme that provided rarities, masterpieces and fascinating contrasts aplenty. ACO director and leader, Richard Tognetti continues to push the chamber orchestra repertoire further and further, taking in string quartets and songs in ravishing arrangements to put to bed any doubts about scaling-up these intimate jewels.

Tognetti has encountered some resistance to expanding smaller works for the ACO. Ravel’s single String Quartet could be a case in point – seemingly so perfectly judged for four players that any tampering would only dilute it. But Tognetti’s version is sensitively done and with playing as inviting as the ACO’s impossible to resist. Tognetti begins with the four section leaders – suggesting that they alone could turn-in a winning performance of the original – before choosing his moment to introduce the remaining players. They steal in, almost under the radar, building on a particular moment of Ravel’s rustling texture and revealing widescreen scope to the previously focused foursome. But what make Tognetti’s tampering all the more thrilling are the extra moments of textural beauty, often pointed up by the addition of a single double bass to add finely judged weight.

Tognetti had gone a step further in the concert’s opener: a reimagining of Paganini’s Caprices 17 and 20 (for solo violin), now for two violin soloists and other ACO members. Setting the tone of surprise and invention for the concert, Tognetti’s Caprice on Paganini’s Caprices (DEVA) was borne on a waft of string harmonics and trilling, and injected with snatches of Paganini’s music that recalled Alfred Schnittke’s irreverent treatment of earlier music. Then, a total contrast with Richard Meale’s Cantilena Pacifica, composed in 1979. The Australian composer, who died in 2009, made the shift from aggressive modernism to tonality in the mid-70s, Cantilena Pacifica is a rocking elegy, carrying a soulful solo violin line on a distant but consoling bed of strings that demonstrated astonishing control and beauty of tone from the ACO.

Dawn UpshawThe concert’s final sequence joined the dots between three troubled composers from the Austro-German school: Schumann – his ‘Mondnacht’ (from the second Liederkreis) belies the composer’s inner turmoil – to deathly Schubert and anguished Schoenberg. Dawn Upshaw intoned the grim reaper’s lines in Der Tod und das Mädchen with grave solemnity and reached the full expressionist horror of Schoenberg’s ‘Litanei’ (from String Quartet No.2), but was less comfortable in the gentle flow of ‘Mondnacht’. Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht (originally for string sextet in 1899 but later arranged for string orchestra) gave the ACO its most vigorous test. Even if, occasionally, the ensemble fell short of total security, the musicians gave the most vivid storytelling I have heard in this work. Schoenberg attempts an abstracted setting of Richard Dehmel’s poetic tale of the anguish and reconciliation of two lovers; it was this arc that the ACO painted so convincingly.

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