tue 20/04/2021

Trpčeski, Australian Chamber Orchestra, Tognetti, Queen Elizabeth Hall | reviews, news & interviews

Trpčeski, Australian Chamber Orchestra, Tognetti, Queen Elizabeth Hall

Trpčeski, Australian Chamber Orchestra, Tognetti, Queen Elizabeth Hall

New World orchestra brings Old World style to their performance

Richard Tognetti: the Australian Chamber Orchestra's unorthodox leader

A music broadcaster commented after last night’s concert by the Australian Chamber Orchestra that all the hype, all the talk about the surf-obsessed, free-spirited leader Richard Tognetti, had left her half expecting them to surf onto the stage of the Queen Elizabeth Hall. As they walked on however (decorously, and rather more smartly dressed than most English groups) we were reminded that there’s nothing gimmicky about this ensemble.

A music broadcaster commented after last night’s concert by the Australian Chamber Orchestra that all the hype, all the talk about the surf-obsessed, free-spirited leader Richard Tognetti, had left her half expecting them to surf onto the stage of the Queen Elizabeth Hall. As they walked on however (decorously, and rather more smartly dressed than most English groups) we were reminded that there’s nothing gimmicky about this ensemble. They might stage surf-music retreats, play concerts in the Australian desert, but when it comes down to performance they are as ferociously serious as any of their tailcoated Viennese counterparts.

The split personality of Grieg’s String Quartet in G minor – the worldly salon ennui set against lively folk rusticity – creates something of a musical fist-fight. It’s one that endures, however deeply sublimated, through all four movements; even in the most languorous passages the push-pull tug of counter-rhythms sends ripples to the surface, as viola or second violin repeatedly takes up the struggle against the supremacy of the first. Scaled up for string orchestra by Tognetti himself, these conflicts were only exacerbated last night, with the greater force and variety offered by the thicker ensemble giving some much-needed weight to the work.

The Australian Chamber Orchestra turned whole movements into a single arching gestureThe fretful angst of the quartet’s first movement suits the ACO well. Theirs is an intensity that can occasionally risk overwhelming slighter repertoire, and though the grace of the second movement (where folk melody sheds its clogs and dons some rather affected silks instead) was sustained through conversation solo exchanges from among the orchestra, the music felt constantly on the edge of being unmasked and exposed as an intruder.

Shostakovich’s oddity, the Concerto No 1 for piano, trumpet and strings, took a wrong turn on the way to being a traditional trumpet concerto. In its final incarnation the trumpet (played here by Tine Thing Helseth) is reduced to a supporting role, playing the sardonic joker and parodist to the piano’s straight man, colouring the final Allegro con brio with bright, sharp shades that tell us how far we’ve come from the muted opening.

Helseth’s musicality is a joy (as she demonstrated in her encore of two Spanish folk songs by Manuel de Falla, accompanied by the concerto’s soloist Simon Trpčeski [pictured right]), but it was Trpčeski who dominated proceedings, bringing off an elegant coup in the opening gambit of the Moderato where he transformed his melody from ingratiating geniality to gruffness in less than 12 bars. His vaudevillian finale was a little less assured (I’d have been interested to hear how Kempf, soloist for the orchestra’s Birmingham concert, performed it), but the whole was kept on the right side of overdone by Tognetti and the orchestra.

Joined by wind and brass (in suitably chamber incarnations) for Mozart’s Symphony No 40, the ACO romped to the close in style. The Baroque instinct for the dance is always there in Tognetti’s direction, but while for some ensembles this can fragment the music into its rhythmic units, here it brought focus to the orchestra’s phrasing, turning whole movements into a single arching gesture. While swift speeds aid this (notably in the closing Allegro assai), it’s mostly a matter of articulation, which proved itself flexible enough to encompass a daringly spare Andante as well as a more classically Germanic, dug-in sound for the Menuetto.

So no, there was no surfing and no outward eccentricity (unless you count some rather spectacular hairstyles) from the Australian Chamber Orchestra last night. Tognetti is no Nigel Kennedy – and that in the best possible way. His is a rigorous, disciplined talent, informed by historical performance practice as much as by the humour and energy of the orchestra’s homeland, and it’s an approach shared by all his musicians. In a recent interview, Tognetti told me of a Japanese agent who suggested that the orchestra would sell more tickets and be taken more seriously by changing just one letter in their name, transforming themselves into the Austrian Chamber Orchestra. It would be funny if he hadn’t been serious.

Comments

I was at the QEH concert feeling quite tired, and was very perked up by the freshness of the ACO's playing. I particularly liked their Haydn encore - played with a precision and delicacy that made me want to hear a lot more. My new favourite chamber orchestra!

In Birmingham they gve us Mozart's K201 as well as K550 - both superb; and the finest performance of Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings I've heard in 50 years of concertgoing. Freddy Kempf was a brilliant soloist in the concerto. This was a mammoth 5*+ concert. We didn't need encores.

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