Insufficient superlatives to describe sublime performance

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The Australian Chamber Orchestra… an evening of brilliant programming and incredible playing.

Music / “Schubert’s Quintet”, Australian Chamber Orchestra. At Llewellyn Hall, May 15. Reviewed by CLINTON WHITE

PERHAPS it is one “Herr Kaufmann”, via Ludwig van Beethoven, whom we should thank for Franz Schubert’s String Quintet in C Major, D.956, the so-called “perfect” quintet.

Kaufmann had written an arrangement, for string quintet, of Beethoven’s 1795 Piano Trio in C Minor, Op. 1, No. 3. He showed it to Beethoven, who was almost totally deaf, in 1817. 

Unsurprisingly, Beethoven was not impressed. So, he sat down and wrote his own arrangement of the Trio. It became the String Quintet in C Minor, Op. 104. 

He called Kaufmann’s effort a “three-voice quintet” and deposited it on the fire “as a solemn burnt offering to the gods of the underworld”.

A decade later, Beethoven died at the age of 57 and Schubert was a pallbearer at his funeral. Schubert was to die, at just 31 years of age, a year later.

Schubert looked up to Beethoven and wanted to emulate his compositional style. Many today would say he succeeded. Schubert’s prolific compositional career culminated in his monumental, final, and much-celebrated chamber work, his String Quintet in C Major, completed just two months before he died. It’s a work of symphonic proportions, boasting almost an hour’s duration. 

A very much scaled-down Australian Chamber Orchestra brought these two quintets together in a brilliant concert, featuring the cream of the ACO’s already exceptional ensemble.

Beethoven was first, with ACO director Richard Tognetti and Helena Rathbone playing violins (Tognetti’s is from 1743 and Rathbone’s is from 1759), alongside Stefanie Ferrands and Elizabeth Woolnough on 20th century violas, and Timo-Veikko Valve playing a cello made in 1616.

Beethoven’s arrangement is remarkable, spreading the piano part across the ensemble, complete with the many runs up and down the keyboard.

There are insufficient superlatives in the dictionary to embellish a description of this ensemble’s performance. Simply, it was sublime.

Most remarkably, there was a lightness, a tenderness, in the playing across the ensemble, even in the bits where Beethoven becomes excitable. When the lead passed between instruments, the change was almost imperceptible, such was the unanimity of touch, dynamics and tempo between the players. For the listener, the eyes followed the ears.

Schubert’s quintet calls for two cellos, so Woolnough stepped aside for cellist, Melissa Barnard, playing an 1846 instrument.

Much has been said about Schubert’s state of mind when he composed this work. He knew death’s door was opening for him. So, many a scholar has read all sorts of meanings into the music. In the end, though, it is a majestic work, full of great beauty and drama, sadness and joy, introspection and reflection. For the listener, Schubert’s quintet has a quality that gently but emphatically demands attention. 

Once again, this ACO ensemble’s expressive playing and thoughtful interpretation captured their capacity audience. There was an uncommon quiet as they soaked up the exquisite performance.

The “adagio” movement, especially, was marked by alluring but understated pizzicato and bowed exchanges between Tognetti’s violin and Barnard’s cello. With the remaining players providing an exquisite, perfectly paced accompaniment, Tognetti and Barnard achieved uniform dynamics and touch, as well as flawless timing, such that neither instrument dominated the other, even the cello with its larger and deeper configuration.

Indeed, even in its subtlety, this cohesion, across the entire performance, was the hallmark of this concert.

This was an evening of brilliant programming and incredible playing from the Australian Chamber Orchestra.

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