With Richard Egarr in the multiple roles of genial host, inspiring conductor and brilliant keyboard player, the Australian Chamber Orchestra has once again found a winning combination. As Music Director of the Academy of Ancient Music for the last nine years Egarr is also well placed to present a program of Baroque and Classical music that is historically informed.
In tune with performances of Mendelssohn’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream by the Australian Ballet next door in the State Theatre, orchestral selections from Henry Purcell’s masque version, The Fairy Queen, headed up ACO’s program. Tripping fairies, merry haymakers and melodious birds figured as part of a series of contrasting pieces played with verve and colour. Perhaps the most beguiling was the evocation of night, with muted strings and oboe conjuring up the slumberous serenity of a warm summer evening.
Further priming his audience with his wit and enthusiasm, Egarr recommended William Lawes in terms of being one of his favourite composers. Lawes was also a great favourite of Charles 1, who mourned his premature death in 1645 at the Siege of Chester so much that he dubbed him “the Father of Musick”. Egarr described Lawes’ short Fantasy (No. 1) in terms of a battle between the two three-strong groups of stringed instruments. Although the final repeated notes of Lawes’ signature certainly conveyed a sense of urgency, much of the playing seemed more conversational in nature with echoing phrases of heartfelt dialogue.
Two concertos straddled interval. Principal Violin, Satu Vanska spun the most beautiful silvery thread of finely textured sound for J. S. Bach’s Concerto for Violin in A minor. Minimal use of vibrato and dexterous, stylish ornamentation in the final Allegro assai were part of a stylish performance that provoked bravos from the audience and a courtly kissing of her hand by Egarr.
After interval, Egarr moved from his position as continuo harpsichordist cum director to fortepiano soloist for Haydn’s Concerto for Keyboard in D major. With his back no longer to the auditorium he could, and did, interact with the audience as well as the players. Before he began, Egarr introduced some of the special effects hidden in his instrument and warned that this very early piano was extremely soft and that the orchestra would be too. His aim was to draw the audience into the quiet space and, in fact, the customary obbligato of hacking cough that Melbourne audiences generally seem compelled to provide was actually more restrained than usual.
Since Haydn left no cadenzas for posterity, Egarr added to a sense of musical adventure with, “I have no idea what is going to happen and neither does anybody else”. The nature of his initial improvisations certainly took the audience by surprise and was in keeping with Haydn’s daring musical innovations and own brand of irreverence. Egarr’s virtuosity coupled with the joy of sharing wonderful music and engaging directly with the audience was a continuous delight. Even those outrageous glissandi added to the fun.
Haydn’s Symphony No. 44, Trauersinfonie (Mourning Symphony) was treated with a similar combination of youthful exuberance and virtuosic ease, but with a much more wide-ranging dynamic. Graceful, mellow horn playing was a feature of the second movement and tender, warm string tone shaped the song-like melody of the ravishing Adagio. It comes as no surprise that Haydn is said to have asked that the slow movement be played at his funeral. The strongly contrasting characters of the Presto Finale, with its mixture of forceful attack and quivering agitation, provided a jubilant conclusion.
Although the intimacy and acoustic of the Melbourne Recital Centre would have benefitted much of this program, the quality of the music, the excellence of the playing and Egarr’s charm made this a thoroughly enjoyable concert.
Heather Leviston reviewed the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s Egarr & The Golden Age at Hamer Hall on June 14. Suzanne Yanko heard the performance on the following day, and endorses everything her colleague says!