Australian Chamber Orchestra at Cadogan Hall

Vox amoris [UK premiere]
Piano Concerto No.4 in G, Op.58
Symphony No.5 in C minor, Op.67

Dejan Lazić (piano)

Australian Chamber Orchestra
Richard Tognetti (violin)

Reviewed by: Andrew Morris

Reviewed: 31 August, 2010
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

Currently engaged on a worldwide tour, the Australian Chamber Orchestra is certainly a well-kept secret. This compact chamber orchestra matches anything Europe can offer in energy, precision and interpretative rigour – and without a conductor. The ACO’s leader and artistic director, Richard Tognetti, breaks away from his part occasionally to offer guidance and a firm beat with the bow, but the spirit is one of chamber music and of music making by equals.

Tognetti became soloist in Peteris Vasks’s Vox amoris (2009), for violin and string orchestra. This Latvian composer’s music isn’t performed as often as that of some of his more-famous Baltic contemporaries, but on the evidence of this 25-minute work his melodic and tonal style would win many friends among those sceptical about the harder-edged mainstream of contemporary classical music. Sibelius is a strong influence, particularly in the quiet tremolo of its opening moments. The music is driven by melody, but not by thematic development and while Vasks’s distinctly Baltic harmonies are beautiful in their simplicity, the meandering structure of the piece tends towards differing intensities of the same kind of music rather than contrast. Most dramatic are the violin’s unaccompanied passages, to which the orchestra’s calmer music acts as soothing balm. Vasks’s programme-note concludes by explaining his hope that this music “will reach the listeners, making the world a little brighter and more open to love”, though the music’s overriding tone of melancholy and mild anguish tell a rather different story. The ACO could hardly have chosen a piece less likely to frighten the large number of private and corporate benefactors in the audience and while one might have hoped that they had brought with them new music from its home country, the ACO’s dazzling command of colour and Tognetti’s richly expressive virtuosity left all other concerns momentarily behind. It was a great shame that the work’s delicate conclusion was so unthinkingly spoilt by a barrage of coughing.

Dejan Lazić. Photograph: Susie KnollThe care and precision of the ACO’s playing was matched by Croatian pianist Dejan Lazić in Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto. He brought an immaculate Mozartean clarity to the solo part, though in applying the brakes at each entry and interrupting his phrasing with excessive rubato, he seemed at odds with the easy flow of the accompaniment. It can’t be easy to compete with orchestral playing as refined as this, though. His opening chords were trumped by the orchestra’s reply, which was as delicate and fresh as it is possible to imagine. This level of inspiration continued into the solemn slow movement in which the orchestra’s fiercely clipped articulation was met by an almost completely unchanging dynamic from Lazić, maximising the contrasts in this remarkably intense central movement. If there was one weak moment in accompaniment, it was the transition into the finale, which was less carefully judged than might have been expected. Lazić’s cadenzas were unfamiliar and the programme unhelpfully failed to identify them. He offered Chopin’s E minor Waltz as an encore.

Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony was powerful and intense. ‘Period’-performance practice informed the ACO’s approach to vibrato but did not preclude an enormous weight of sound. The opening movement was driven by powerful forward momentum but the trailing off of certain phrases suggested a world-weariness sometimes lost in less insightful performances. A brisk dance-like quality and some excellent wind-playing characterised the third movement, while the stabbing homophonic chords leading into the finale’s coda were played with greater unity of attack than I have ever heard from any orchestra. Tognetti, directing from the violin, led a performance as incisive as any directed by a conductor, the various sections maintaining far greater eye-contact than normal.

This was thrilling playing. As a generous encore was the finale of Mozart’s ‘Jupiter’ Symphony, albeit without repeats.

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