When Frank Bridge took on the 14-year-old Benjamin Britten as his pupil, the budding composer was already producing some impressive works, among which was an Elegy for Strings – he stipulated 68 of them to be precise. It was never performed in his lifetime and only received its premiere in 2013 at the London Proms as part of his centenary.

Richard Tognetti and the 17 strings of the Australian Chamber Orchestra gave it its first outing before an Australian audience at the start of their latest tour, and already we get glimpses of great things to come in among the lush Elgarian overlay. Restless and urgent rather than elegiac, it has some interesting twists and turns – a little fugue here, a pastoral episode there – and made for a great opener to this program of one adolescent and one mature work by Britten and his great hero Mozart.

ACO

Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante, Australian Chamber Orchestra, 2022. Photo © Nic Walker

The main work of the evening was Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante, which gave the ACO’s newest member, Principal Viola Stefanie Farrands, a place in the spotlight. The 33-year-old, who joined the Emerging Artists program at 19, was appointed in 2020 following her tenure as Principal of the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra.

This was a performance from the top drawer, with both soloists combining seamlessly throughout the three movements. The cadenzas of the first and second movements were a highlight and in the first movement Tognetti and the ACO in this string arrangement brought out the textures and colours of Mozart’s score – the pizzicatos, the cellos in harmony taking the horn parts, all lending a different dimension you don’t normally get from the full orchestral version.

So impressive were the interweaving solos of Tognetti and Farrands that the audience burst into spontaneous applause at the end of the first movement.

The two instruments – Tognetti’s 1743 Guarneri and Farrand’s 2016 viola from Berlin – were equally matched and married in the moving andante, Mozart’s lament for his recently departed mother.

Mozart was only a year older than the juvenile Britten when he wrote the Divertimento in D major, and this work is firmly implanted in my childhood musical DNA as it was the first Mozart I got to know – even before the ubiquitous Eine Kleine Nachtmusik – from a budget LP my father bought.

The sound quality put out by the ACO, however, was far superior, I’m happy to say.

Ten years after starting lessons with Bridge, Britten showed his debt and gratitude with his Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge – 11 short pieces that affectionately portray the qualities of his teacher and friend.

Tognetti and his band gave a spellbinding performance of these cameos – the Adagio with its anguished fiddles fretting over sinister suspended chords in the low strings, the stomping Bourée Classique, the slightly manic Wiener Waltzer and the superbly executed Moto Perpetuo.

No wonder the older composer was so moved by his protégé’s wonderful tribute.

And in a concert which celebrated the oft-maligned viola and its manifest glories, it is worth remembering Bridge’s touching gesture when he was saying goodbye to the Pacifist Britten, off to America to wait out the war. He presented his old pupil with his treasured instrument as a farewell gift.


The Australian Chamber Orchestra tours its Mozart Sinfonia Concertante program until 23 May. Tour information here.

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