The Romantics

String Quartet in B minor, Op.11
Concerto for violin and strings in D minor
String Quartet in C sharp minor, Op.131

Australian Chamber Orchestra
Anthony Marwood (violin)

Reviewed by: William Yeoman

Reviewed: 12 July, 2006
Venue: Perth Concert Hall, Western Australia

For the latest tour by the Australian Chamber Orchestra, of which this visit to Perth formed the last leg, Anthony Marwood stepped into Richard Tognetti’s directorial shoes to lead the orchestra through a programme of unashamedly Romantic music, starting with Samuel Barber’s Opus 11 (from which the famous Adagio for Strings is derived) and ending with Beethoven’s Opus 131, a work that still challenges the ear. In between, Marwood was both soloist and director in Mendelssohn’s early D minor violin concerto.

Barber’s String Quartet in B minor was written 1936-38 and dedicated to the composer’s aunt (a mezzo) and uncle (a composer); Barber later orchestrated the slow movement at the request of Toscanini; it was reworked yet again in 1971 as an ‘Agnus Dei’ for unaccompanied choir. Here the ACO used the orchestrated version; the outer movements are played from the original quartet version.

As one would expect from Marwood, this was a well-sculpted yet highly expressive performance, acknowledging both the romantic and formalist elements in the work. The troubled outer movements (the first with its emphasis on contrasting themes and the third with its exploration of extremes of register) maintained an expository quality without losing their sense of mystery, the sound of a quartet peeking from the crevices like some revenant. The same could be said for the Molto adagio, the ACO delivering some beautifully shaped solos within the overall texture and exhibiting near-perfect dynamic control.

Mendelssohn wrote his D minor concerto for violin and strings in 1822 for his friend and violin teacher Eduard Rietz. A youthful work, then, and not without a little note-spinning here and there; despite the evident influences of JS Bach, Mozart and Haydn, the work is more Italianate than anything else – although the final movement has all the ebullience of a Hungarian dance. One got the feeling Marwood could play this in his sleep, such was the easy grace with which he negotiated the endless effusions layered over the orchestral accompaniment. But that’s not to say this was a perfunctory performance – far from it. The rhythmic inflections, the intonation, the tasteful phrasing, the overall feeling for larger paragraphs: all pointed to a totally committed reading where Marwood’s virtuosity simply couldn’t conceal itself – not to mention his transparent, velvety tone. The ACO for its part responded to Marwood’s enthusiasm with equal gusto.

Following the interval, a very different experience awaited the audience in the form of Beethoven’s C sharp minor string quartet. Here the ACO played straight from the quartet score, and the effect was quite remarkable if not entirely convincing. Certainly it is nothing unusual for larger ensembles to play string quartets – Erin Helyard’s programme notes mention a tradition of string orchestras playing Beethoven string quartets that dates back to the 1830s – but here and there you felt the overburdening effect of the thicker textures, particularly in the fugal movements.

Perhaps the Theme and Variations and the wonderful final Allegro were the most satisfying, and indeed other such moments where a sense of intimacy is not paramount. The performance itself could not be faulted, the ACO under Marwood’s masterful direction moving as one.

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