Australian Chamber Orchestra/Richard Tognetti with Steven Osborne – Haydn & Mozart and the UK premiere of Jonny Greenwood’s Water

Symphony No.83 in G minor (The Hen)
Piano Concerto No.27 in B flat, K595
Jonny Greenwood
Water [UK premiere]
Symphony No.29 in A, K201

Stephen Osborne (piano)

Australian Chamber Orchestra
Richard Tognetti (director & violin)

Reviewed by: Alan Sanders

Reviewed: 4 October, 2014
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

Steven Osborne. Photograph: Benjamin EalovegaFor readers who haven’t experienced the Australian Chamber Orchestra in live performance, it comprises 17 strings (5/5/3/3/1), with woodwind and brass added as required. Apart from the cellos, of course, all the string-players stand to perform, and it’s noticeable how free and expressive their body motions are as they respond to the music. The woodwind-players stand or sit, according to the nature of the music and the ensemble used, and in this concert the horn-players stood at the back of the platform. The immaculate ensemble achieved must be the result of lengthy rehearsal, since Richard Tognetti cannot control proceedings constantly when playing. On the rare occasions when he was not engaged as a violinist and used his bow as a baton, his gestures seemed superfluous.

It was a joy to hear such a clear-cut, spirited and superlatively played performance of Haydn’s ‘Hen’ Symphony (La Poule). The composer’s natural warmth and good humour were very apparent, and even shone through the minor-key veil of the first movement, which almost had a dance-like quality – though maybe it was the players’ enthusiastic body-language that encouraged this impression. The performance was also adorned by the most lovely, heart-easing phrasing in the Andante, a deliciously buoyant Minuet and Trio and a dashing, exuberant finale.

Mozart’s final Piano Concerto does not perhaps show the composer at his most inspired, or so it seemed here. Steven Osborne’s playing in the opening movement was immaculate and had a beautiful, pearly tone quality, but not a great deal seemed to ruffle the surface of the music, and the orchestra was a little more subdued than in the Haydn. In the slow movement Osborne showed more feeling in his playing, and he introduced some interesting ornamentation, but he did little to elevate the somewhat trivial material of the finale into a higher realm of expression.

In a concert of music that was otherwise of the eighteenth-century Jonny Greenwood’s Water, premiered just three days previously in Dublin, came as a stark contrast of mood and style, even though it can’t be said to be a ‘difficult’ work. The music is inspired by a brief Philip Larkin lyric baring the same title, in which the poet declares that “If I were called in / To construct a religion / I should make use of water.” The work is scored for two flutes, two tampuras (a long-necked string instrument originating from southern Asia), amplified piano, chamber organ (or, as here, a sampler keyboard) and 17 separate string parts. Most of the music is slow, with rippling effects in the keyboard parts and gentle undulations, though towards the end the tempo increases and the string-writing becomes more complex and astringent before the 18-minute piece closes quietly. Here is a mildly intriguing score that won’t, I think, make any large waves (so to speak).

Then it was back to Mozart – a bracing, sparkling reading of Symphony 29. Here members of the first and second violins swapped places, but the high quality of playing remained. The opening movement was played elegantly, with piquant touches in the phrasing. In the remaining movements tempos were pretty upbeat, but not entirely to the liking of this writer: a little more relaxation would have served the music well, and although the finale was brilliantly played, it was also a bit ruthless. As in the Haydn, exposition repeats were taken.

To end the evening Tognetti and his string colleagues gave an expressive performance of the brief and appropriately named ‘Good Night’, transcribed from one of the piano pieces that make up Janáček’s On an Overgrown Path.

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