Comparisons between the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra and the Australian Chamber Orchestra are inevitable, especially when the two Sydney-based ensembles land in Melbourne over the same weekend. This was the case on the first weekend of May, causing music lovers a deal of angst as well as pleasure in sorting out their diaries and priorities for Saturday, Sunday and Monday.
Reviewers, with their tickets supplied, had only to sort out times, and the angle they would take their reviews. For this admirer of both orchestras, the interest was in the program for each, particularly the dominance of Mozart, albeit in very different genres of the great composer.
There was no surprise in the ACO’s choice of a Mozart violin concerto, but the Brandenburgs’ choice of the Requiem was quite unexpected. In fact this work was only one of nine presented in the program by the orchestra, the Brandenburg Choir and Brandenburg Young Voices, with Artistic Director and Conductor Paul Dyer. The concert program was:
Williams Festive Alleluia
Anon Gaudete from Piae Cantiones 1582
Anon Salva nos, stella maris
Palestrina Alma Redemptoris Mater
di Lasso Matona Mia Cara
Rutter What Sweeter Music
Rutter For the Beauty of the Earth
Handel Hallelujah (Chorus) from Messiah
Mozart Requiem Mass in D minor, K. 626
Rather confusingly, although the title of the concert was Mozart Requiem: 100 Voices the major work was performed by the smaller Brandenburg choir, while the young singers from schools in Melbourne dominated the first half of the program only. The program was interesting, with worthy works from across the centuries, but it lacked a sense of progression or connection. Starting with Williams’ Festive Alleluia the works quickly moved to familiar Brandenburg territory of early music only to return to John Rutter, and then (for the big sing), the Hallelujah chorus from Handel’s Messiah. This completed the first half of the program.
The experienced and the young singers combined for some of these items, but the young voices were the focus of interest for most. They were the triumph of the concert, beautifully prepared by choirmaster Philip Carmody and sympathetically accompanied by the orchestra. It was a joy to hear them, and to witness the enthusiasm and excitement the young singers brought every work. In the Hallelujah Chorus, for example, one could see the thrill they had being part of such a large block of sound, perhaps for the first time.
It was up to the visiting Brandenburg Choir to deliver a second half that surpassed the first. With such a work as the Mozart Requiem this should have been easy, especially with soloists of the calibre of soprano Amy Moore, alto Max Riebl, tenor Paul Sutton and bass Ben Caulkwell. There were many noteworthy moments such as the Lachrymosa, which was sung slowly, sweetly and yet powerfully, and the quartet Benedictus which began with the exquisite alto of Max Riebl. But throughout, the tempo seemed more suited to the baroque than the classical period, with some choruses taken at a quite risky speed.
The Requiem is a work that is often performed, and features in more films than just the 1984 Amadeus, so every listener will bring his or her expectation to a performance. Although on the whole this was an enjoyable performance, it failed to consistently engage on a deep emotional level despite some very memorable choruses from a well-trained and keen choir.
It seems the ABO approached the Requiem as if it were an earlier work, from the opening bars with their light, even lilting touch to the strong measured polyphonic choruses such as the Kyrie. Even the declamatory start to Rex tremendae moved quickly to a more measured treatment of the music. The Confutatis had more of a free element, the men’s voices creating “confusion” with the women’s voices in contrast softer and pleading.
If the Brandenburgs approached this Classical masterpiece from a Baroque perspective, The Australian Chamber Orchestra began with Bach’s The Art of Fugue: Contrapunctus I – IV with something of the greater freedom of a Classical work. The performance showed the strength of the ACO strings but appeared subdued and even tentative at some moments such as in the third Contrapunctus. It was an appropriate opening work for the concert but at times lacked the spare beauty of Bach’s composition. In the final movement the plucked strings were effective, but did I hear singing ( à la Swingle singers)? There was no such ambiguity in other works that were closer to the ACO’s core brief: Beethoven’s String Quartet, Op.130 and Grosse Fugue, Op.133, both arranged for strings. Both were showpieces for the orchestra, and the Fugue rounded off the concert beautifully with its similar form to the earlier Bach.
The triumph, however, was the Mozart Violin Concerto No.5, K.219 with the ACO’s director Richard Tognetti as soloist. There was nothing tentative about this work from first movement to the final fourth. A strong yet controlled entry by all soon settled to music that could only be called “classically Mozart”. It was up to the soloist to change the pace and style so that it seemed more like a second movement. A brilliant cadenza at the end of this movement showed Tognetti in fine form.
The adagio was sweet, flowing and very Mozart enhanced by two winds and two brass players. It was yet another fine vehicle for Tognetti, his solo simple and unforced but showing off the integrity of his violin as he performed in gentle dialogue with the orchestra. The third movement rondo is the best-known section of the concerto. With the violin taking the lead this was the most joyous, animated section of the work. Some of the detail was quite florid but eased nicely into the whole. The bowing in the final section was quite thrilling (not just from the leader) with another exciting cadenza before the invigorated ending. Even members of the orchestra applauded their director and soloist, as well they might.
The concerto was the more successful Mozart of the weekend, but there was so much to applaud in the two concerts. It will be a long time before this reviewer forgets the achievement and dedication of the young singers among the 100 voices of the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra’s concert.