Australian Chamber Orchestra – Viennese Masters

Schubert, arr. Ross
Rondo Brilliante in B minor, D895
Septet in E flat, Op.20
Clarinet Quintet in B minor, Op.115

Australian Chamber Orchestra [Satu Vänskä (violin), Chrisopher Moore (viola), Timo-Veikko Valve (cello), Maxime Bibeau (double-bass), Craig Hill (clarinet), Darryl Poulsen (horn), Jane Gower (bassoon)]
Richard Tognetti (violin & direction)

Reviewed by: William Yeoman

Reviewed: 29 September, 2010
Venue: Perth Concert Hall, Western Australia

For its most recent tour, the Australian Chamber Orchestra may have cut back on its personnel. But there was no cutting back on the passion, commitment and technical facility with which it performed the music of these three ‘Viennese Masters’. It was also nice, given it almost never happens, to hear a programme from the Aussie firebrands that didn’t include any contemporary music.

Richard Tognetti has long approached this kind of repertoire from a historically informed perspective, so it’s no surprise that the three wind players performed on modern copies of late-18th and -19th-century instruments. To quote clarinettist Craig Hill: “The clarinets used in this programme represent three distinct phases in the development of the clarinet in the late 18th and 19th centuries, beginning with its simplest and perhaps purest form with just six keys (in the Beethoven), progressing to 12 keys which operate separately (Schubert), and finally to the elaborate system of integrated keys known as the Baermann-Ottensteiner system (Brahms)”. Darryl Poulsen performed on a copy of a Bohemian Classical horn (c.1790), Jane Gower on a copy after one built in 1806 by the Alsatian instrument atelier Bühner & Keller.

Violinist Satu Vänskä was the soloist in Schubert’s 1827 Rondo Brilliante for violin and piano, performed on this occasion in a recent arrangement by Graham Ross for solo violin and septet that gave it the distinct feel of a violin concerto. Vänskä is a team player but it’s a quality that perhaps worked against her here. The playing was technically flawless, the musicianship supreme; but there were few of those extrovert gestures that so characterises Tognetti’s playing.

Next came Beethoven’s Septet in a performance that tended to emphasise the rustic, outdoor origins of the genre. This was underscored by the use of historical winds, Poulsen’s horn especially adding a refined brashness to the overall texture. Best of all, the players seemed to be having a great time; one felt more like an eavesdropper at some sylvan gathering.

However, the highlight was Brahms’s Clarinet Quintet, surely right up there with Mozart’s as one of the most sublime and lyrical works ever written for the instrument. Hill was in his element, the yearning quality of the first two movements made all the more palpable by some exquisite phrasing; the tone, too, was of the utmost delicacy and centredness. Tognetti and his fellow string-players responded in kind, the balance and colour matching the sentiment of the music to perfection. The final Theme and Variations, despite the music lacking any real drama, gripped the listener through the performers’ ability to generate tension via a forceful yet flexible forward momentum. A wonderful end to a wonderful concert.

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