Llewellyn Hall, Australian National University
November 10, 2018

There seems little doubt that many of the string instruments used by Australian Chamber Orchestra players have been played in performances of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto and his Symphony No 5 hundreds, if not thousands, of times since they were built. And it’s likely each time has seen a different interpretation. So, the title for this concert – Tognetti’s Beethoven – was apt, for Richard Tognetti very much made these two monumental pieces his own.

Although written at about the same time – in the first decade of the 19th century – the Concerto and the Fifth Symphony are opposites – almost diametrically. While the Concerto is a romantically lyrical piece, the Symphony, with those most famous four notes of all music, is muscularly revolutionary. Their only similarity, perhaps, might be that both are introduced with four notes, albeit at fff in the Symphony, and at p on timpani in the case of the Concerto.

Tognetti's BeethovenRichard Tognetti. Photo © Nic Walker

It was the 26-year-old virtuoso violinist, Franz Clement, who commissioned Beethoven to write the Concerto (and he played its premiere). Apparently, he was something of a master at understated volume in his playing, and Beethoven surely constructed his piece with that in mind.

It clearly was in Tognetti’s mind, too, for he and his band, playing on gut strings, might just as well have been playing on gossamer threads, such was the delicacy of their bowing and the sound they created.  Even the other instruments, including the natural horns, were played as they might in a lullaby.

The sense of tonal and volume balance was exquisite, with even Tognetti’s softest notes easily finding their way to the fore, and the loudest never washed out. Crescendi and diminuendi were silken smooth, with every instrument in the orchestra precise in their unified volume levels. Tempi reflected the almost pastoral nature of the piece, again under Tognetti’s tightest control, conducting as he did from his violin, with principal violin, Helena Rathbone, stepping in seamlessly when Tognetti was otherwise busy.

But it’s in the cadenzas that any soloist really gets a chance to show off their virtuosity, and Tognetti’s performances of all three (one in each movement) did just that. Using an amalgam of cadenzas written by no less than five of the great post-Beethovenian violinists, Tognetti pushed his instrument’s boundaries to its limits, with his exuberance having him even teetering on the very edge once or twice. But those transgressions faded quickly into oblivion in the whirlwind of brilliance that surrounded Tognetti’s interpretation. Beethoven irrefutably was Tognetti’s own.

Tognetti's BeethovenRichard Tognetti and the Australian Chamber Orchestra. Photo © Nic Walker

Then it was time for ACO’s energetic athleticism in the Beethoven 5. In a no-nonsense, true-to-the-tempo-marking (108 to the minim) performance, this group gave a thrilling account of this old favourite.  Those first four notes and their repeat were not interrupted by the more common lengthy pause; it was a resolute charge-of-the-light-brigade entry that was to be the hallmark for the entire offering.

The band’s extraordinary teamwork heard in the concerto was no less the case in the symphony. Tight as a drum, there were no dreamy long legato note sequences or romanticisation of the mood Beethoven wanted. This was the meaty revolution the Beethoven 5 was meant to be.

Even so, every entry, every note was crystal clear. Every expression marking was given its due. The furious sawing of the cellos and double basses in the scherzo was assertive and decisive. The transition from the scherzo to the fourth movement, Allegro, was a highlight, fading almost to nothing and then building in a smooth, gradual crescendo that would be the envy of any other orchestra on the planet.

Of course, the end of the Fifth is always a crowd-pleaser, and the ACO made it exceptionally so. Solid as a rock, the final repeated chords in C Major, ending on the tonic, yielded immediately to the 1,500-strong audience erupting into rapturous applause, whooping and whistling. This was the stuff of dreams.

The Australian Chamber Orchestra tours Tognetti’s Beethoven nationally until November 21


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