Review / Courageous program creates brilliant music

music / Australian Chamber Orchestra, Llewellyn Hall, August 4. Reviewed by CLINTON WHITE

ACO players

WHO but Richard Tognetti would think to partner music written in 1914, 2011 and 1741, let alone dare to play them without a break, as if movements in a single work?

This courageous programming in the first half of this concert worked brilliantly. And the intelligent link continued into the second half so strongly, it seemed almost a pity an interval had to interrupt the flow. It was like a good book, impossible to put down.

This concert was a classic case of the whole being much greater than the sum of the parts.

From 1914 was Stravinsky’s “Three Pieces for String Quartet”, in an arrangement for strings. Coming just after the premiere of his controversial “The Rite of Spring”, these works led quite some upheaval in the form and style of music composition. The third of the “Three Pieces”, described in the program notes as a “ghostly chant”, provided a seamless segue to the piece from 2011.

In an arrangement for strings, this was the first movement, “Nightfall” from “The Four Quarters”, by British composer, Thomas Adès. Putting his violin aside, Tognetti conducted the ensemble, evoking something of a spooky, still, and dark, but clear night, once again transitioning neatly to the 1741 work, J S Bach’s “Fourteen Canons on a Goldberg Ground”.  

The Canons were little more than some doodling by Bach for keyboard, described in the program notes as a riddle. Tognetti fronted the challenge, arranging it for strings and piano, with guest Erin Helyard at the keys. The work is a set of variations, based on the first eight lower-register notes of Bach’s “Goldberg Variations”, introduced much like those strange, extra-terrestrial five notes in the 1977 movie, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”.

That these three works should become one as the ACO performed them is undoubted testament to Tognetti’s ability to take risks and make triumphs. This was gripping stuff, with sublime playing of incredible precision and delicate textures.

Given the background to the 70-minute work in the second half, J S Bach’s “Goldberg Variations”, first published in 1741, it is hard to understand why it remains so revered – even feared – more than 270 years later.

The story goes that it’s the conclusion to his four-volumes of “Keyboard Practice”. With an opening and closing aria sandwiching 30 variations, Bach’s work was to “cheer up” an insomniac Russian Count on diplomatic duties in the Saxon court, to be played during his sleepless nights by his musician Johann Goldberg.

But, in this arrangement from the late 1990s by Bernard Labadie, written for strings, harpsichord (Helyard) and theorbo (Axel Wolf), the ACO showed just what a masterpiece it is. It took its audience right back to Bach’s time, and even venturing further back, evoking a Renaissance dance style, complete with percussive slapping on the cases of the double bass and a cello.

Again, the ACO’s playing was sublime. The feather-light touch, the delicate phrasing, and the thoughtful staging, giving soloists their space, all combined to create a performance of supreme beauty.

The final movement, “Aria da Capo”, concluded with the softest whisper. Tognetti and his band removed their bows ever so slowly from their instruments, wanting the moment to last, but the audience was too eager to give their reward. Thunderous applause, whistling, and whooping followed to acknowledge some of the finest musicians we will hear.

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