Australian Chamber Orchestra at Milton Court – Richard Tognetti directs Mozart’s Final Three Symphonies – 39, 40 & 41 (Jupiter)

Symphony No.39 in E-flat, K543
Symphony No.40 in G-minor, K550
Symphony No.41 in C, K551 (Jupiter)

Australian Chamber Orchestra
Richard Tognetti (violin & director)

Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson

Reviewed: 22 October, 2018
Venue: Milton Court Concert Hall, London

Australian Chamber Orchestra at Milton Court, Richard Tognetti directingPhotograph: Mark Allan / BarbicanRichard Tognetti’s approach to Mozart is full of detailed phrasing and incorporates personal touches which illuminate the dramatic aspect of these masterpieces. The members of the Australian Chamber Orchestra stood to play – there seems no great advantage in this – but the acoustic of Milton Court certainly enhanced the sound, which, despite the modest number of strings, gave power to these fully-scored Symphonies.

In the eighteenth-century, orchestral works were not always led in a consistent manner. We do know that Haydn directed from the keyboard when performing his Symphonies in London and it was suggested by Christopher Hogwood and Jaap Schröder that those of Mozart were guided jointly by the lead violinist and the keyboard continuo player. Tognetti directs from the violin and effectively so, frequently ceasing to play in order to conduct with the bow. This suited his often personal approach to Mozart, for example, new themes were prepared for by slight relaxation at the end of a previous melody and climaxes were sometimes led into by use of crescendo yet these touches did not hold back the impetus of the music.

Australian Chamber Orchestra at Milton Court, Richard Tognetti directingPhotograph: Mark Allan / Barbican

Symphony 39 was carefully phrased and detailed throughout and there was only one unexpected interpretational moment: the sudden immense weight given to the two chords which introduce a new thematic idea at bar 70 of the first movement. Arching phrases caught the ear but never impeded the flow; indeed the music drove firmly forward with no imposition of tempo change. Strength was given to the Andante while avoiding the common tendency to rush the louder sections; the Minuet was swift but firm and the Finale full of fire, benefitting from the observation of both repeats.

Clarity of sound and admirable balance were notable features of all the renditions; there was the occasional imprecision – usually when concerted woodwind passages took over from string-led melodies, but this was of little consequence. Only in Symphony 40 was Tognetti’s approach less than ideal. He certainly realised the drama of the opening movement and played it at a true Molto allegro but imposed an elegance at odds with the uncompromising fierceness that Mozart surely implied. The revised score was used, with its mellowing additional clarinets, and this also tamed the tension – moments such as the plaintive oboe entries in the slow movement and the soulful solo in the Finale are far less effective when, as here, transferred to the friendly warmth of the clarinet. Only once was there a worry about tempo – the Minuet was uncomfortably fast and far from clear, the woodwinds doing their very best to retain the pace in the Trio but not quite managing it. The decision to play the return of the Minuet quietly at first was convincing however.

Tognetti’s bold shaping was effective in the ‘Jupiter’ and one must forgive his unexpected slowing and fading before holding on to the fermata at bar 23: a strange effect which made the music played up to this point seem like an introduction. Thereafter, all was keenly driven – exciting music-making with no lingering in the Andante cantabile and, although fast, the Minuet was vividly dramatic and the Trio strikingly forceful. Precision made the Finale an exhilarating experience; the strings were immaculate in ensemble and their power considerable.

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