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ACO: Chopin And Mendelssohn’’s Octet

by Suzanne Yanko

The Australian Chamber Orchestra opened its national season with a punishing tour, and a rather clumsily titled concert that would seem to suggest these two great Romantic composers collaborated to produce an Octet. The honour of that work was Mendelssohn’’s alone – although there were two arrangements on the program.

The first was by the ACO Artistic Director and Lead Violin Richard Tognetti, who merged two Paganini caprices into Caprice on Caprices, a showpiece for the ACO’s magnificent violins (including a Strad). Showpieces do not, however, necessarily make enjoyable listening – and the repetitive rhythm worked against the few melodic phrases there were.

Similarly, Morricone’’s exercises i: adagio, while presenting an interesting aspect of composer’s work, was so different from his popular scores that it had little to offer an audience lured by the promise of Romantic works. Or so people were saying at interval. However, by then conservative tastes had been mollified with Polina Leschenko’’s performance of the Chopin Piano Concerto no.1 in E minor. A sensitive arrangement by Richard Hofman allowed for a reduced strings accompaniment, well suited to the ACO as the extended introduction (before the piano entry) gave the orchestra opportunity to demonstrate. (Here the reviewer must confess to possible bias: Arthur ‘’s performance of this work was the first I ever heard, and remains unequalled – as a digital remastering confirmed).

The concerto calls for an extraordinary blend of strength (as in the op ening chords) and lyricism, for example in the descending passages that are like a crystal-clear waterfall. The pianist’’s musicality was never in doubt – (I noted down words like “beautiful” and “poetic”) – but she did not have the assertiveness to match,  so that some notes were ‘lost’ in her own performance, let alone that of the orchestra. My guest at this performance suggested the Town Hall Steinway may have been at fault – and certainly the first work after interval showed that Leschenko did not lack strength and power when it was needed. The Gorecki Piano Concerto is alternatively for harpsichord, but I fear that any early instrument would not easily withstand the mass of crashing chords demanded by the work. The ACO’’s role was like that of a ground bass (against a barrage of scales from the piano) with the players demonstrating an impressive synchronicity in the stressed notes. Those listening for any hint of the composer of the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs would not have found it in this 1980 work (although the erudite program notes by Graeme Skinner said that 20 years later, Gorecki borrowed the opening left-hand chords to underpin the final movement of that symphony, his third). The performance suggested that both soloist and orchestra could handle any score before them, no matter what the tempo, dynamics and mood – and the audience responded throughout with enthusiastic applause.

As for the Mendelssohn Octet, what is there to say? It is a beautiful work, and we knew the ACO would give it the performance it deserved. Interestingly, Tognetti’’s own playing could be better appreciated in this work than in any of the fireworks or clever composition that had preceded it. Altogether, an interesting program, brilliantly executed. Rating: 4 out of 5 stars ACO: Chopin And Mendelssohn’s Octet Melbourne Town Hall 19 February

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