ACO: Intimate Mozart

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Published: 4th July, 2017

The title of the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s recent concert tour, Intimate Mozart, was a hint at its format and the music to be played. It represented an departure, even for this innovative orchestra and its director, Richard Tognetti, never one to shy away from something new.

Not that a concert featuring Mozart and Schumann would be too daring, and the ACO is not the first ensemble to flirt with notions of authenticity or, conversely, experimentation.

Intimate Mozart was in no way confronting, and was an enjoyable concert as you could hope to hear, even given a a lot of alternatives on the night. Quite simply the ACO chose to showcase the soloist-level skills of some of its own members along with other performers by presenting chamber music, and more radically, having a small number to present quite a mass of sound. The concerto clearly inspired the name of the concert. Although it was bookended by the two Schumann works, the Piano Concerto No.13 In C Major by Mozart had a role for all five players and deserves to be the first focus of this review.

The ACO described its guest artist, the pianist Kristian Bezuidenhout, as “one of the world’s leading performers of Mozart”, and the program notes reminded the audience of Mozart’s own ability to draw the Viennese crowds. Bezuidenhout was the soloist in the Piano Concerto No.13 which the composer himself wrote could be “performed with full orchestra … or merely a quattro”.

That was apparently music to the ears (or simply a challenge) for Richard Tognetti, who had a fine bank of potential soloists to draw on from his ACO ensemble. Naturally he would be first violin, standing beside his loyal and long-time deputy, second violin Helena Rathbone, with violist Florian Peelman completing the upper strings. ACO Principal Cellist Timo-Veikko Valve was a natural choice to complete the quartet/quintet, as both a top musician and a reportedly genial colleague.

If a musician is well-known in the context of a larger ensemble then he or she will be even more the focus of attention playing chamber music with three or four others. It was a relaxed and expectant audience which made a good showing in the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall to hear music more often presented in the Salon, namely (as well as the Mozart) two works by Schumann, his String Quartet No.3 In A Major and Piano Quintet In E-Flat Major.

The Quartet captured attention with its opening Andante espressivo, notable for an early syncopated effect and a recurring motif. It afforded appreciation of the balance between the four players, as well as a renewed admiration for Schumann’s mastery of the form. For instance, Timo-Veikko Valve’s cello at times had a leading role, starting with grounding the melodies of the first movement, and introducing the second. (It was easy to understand why Valve is so in demand as a soloist or colleague, and principal cellist of the ACO).

The second movement, variations marked assai agitato, soon moved to an ensemble piece with challenges like the fast fugue well met. As the rhythm changed to 3/4 all four took turns to be “soloist”, including Tognetti who again showed the dedication he gives to every performance, whatever his role. The quartet’s unity carried into the the slow movement’s trance-like dance, a contrast to the rest of the work but the more admirable for that.

At last the pacy fourth movement delivered a Finale which seemed to test the ensemble, its emphatic chords delivering the sound of a much bigger ensemble, and heard to advantage in the acoustically-friendly Elisabeth Murdoch Hall.

Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.13 gave the violins prominence to begin, with a quiet melody concluding with a burst of sound before the end of the opening subject. Up to this point, the pianist had the role of member of the quintet (foreshadowing the final work of the evening) … but soon he was to take a strong lead, a position from which he would not step back in all three movements of the concerto.

In a first movement which was classically Mozartian, it was Bezuidenhout’s performance that commanded attention as he executed trills, runs and arpeggios with ease. The main purpose of the strings appeared to be to add harmony to this performance, which was achieved with a fine balance between the players, right up to the cadenza that served as a joyous end to the movement. By contrast, the second movement was sweet but remarkable mainly for the empathetic warm playing of the ensemble.

But it seemed that the composer (and thus the musicians) could hardly wait to get to the third movement, and the vigorous Rondeau which again put the piano on centre stage. The strings did their part with well judged dynamics and rubatos at almost every cadence but it was Bezuidenhout’s apparently effortless execution that was intended to be of interest, the composer securing the piano’s prominence with a cadenza which cleverly played on ideas from the third movement. Near the end, a sudden change of rhythm and tempo to a dance-like allegro led to one of the most delightful and delicate endings imaginable. Pure Mozart.

The combination of artists had more than proved its worth before interval and, in a demanding program, the one remaining work, Schumann’s Piano Quintet In E-Flat Major.