There had been so much media interest in the visiting cellist, Giovanni Sollima, that attention was perhaps diverted from the host organisation, the Australian Chamber Orchestra. This is a risk that the orchestra habitually runs, thanks to its careful choice of fine soloists, although the pay-off at the box office justifies a policy that is wise both musically and fiscally.
However, it is all the more pleasing when the first item allows the orchestra to establish its own credentials – and this the ACO certainly did with the Respighi Ancient Airs and Dances: Suite no.3. It was perfect ACO fare, with its resonance and power – especially in unison sections. Dynamics were well controlled by director Richard Tognetti and there was particularly good phrasing from the lower strings. Although it is an ensemble piece, it highlights different sections of the ensemble and even occasionally soloists, for instance the viola, which was heard to advantage more than once on the night.
But, as indicated, there had been a lot of hype before the concert about the soloist, so there was excitement when Sollima appeared with his cello: a small figure with greying hair, perhaps, but with a palpable presence. The soloist gave the Boccherini Cello Concerto in G his intense attention; he was absorbed in the music even when simply listening, not playing.
Once he started playing, however, Sollima dominated the stage, especially in moments such as the shift to the minor key. But his personality shone through – as halfway through the first movement, when some nifty fingering had him looking cheekily at Tognetti. In the lovely but quite spare second movement, there were respectful interchanges between the two as Sollima exhibited superb technique and the ACO showed itself to be the best partner a soloist could hope for.
Sollima plays with his whole body, as became evident in the third movement when he seemed to be daring the orchestra to join in his spirited attack on the music. The audience appreciated the performance, which included a showy cadenza – but this was nothing compared with what came next: Sollima’s own composition, L.B. Files. Soon the cellist started his famous wandering about the stage while playing the cello. His superb technique was so on show that for the first long part the orchestra had an accompanist’s role and only occasionally did the melody burst through.
The ACO did get to have some fun with the odd foot stamping, while Sollima imitated the growl of his instrument, pretended to brush away insects and used two bows for effect. A second movement with a quite haunting sound based around a conventional major chord was a brief interlude before the fandango was announced. Adding to its frenetic sound the orchestra shouted and added some pizzicato. As Sollima joined in there was a lovely flow to the music and finally something of a bluegrass sound! Tognetti wisely took a back seat and pretty much left the orchestra to cope with everything on stage, ignoring their occasional giggles.
After interval the Hayden Cello Concerto in C restored some normality to the stage. There was a mellow and bright beginning to this well-known concerto Sollima settled into a conventional soloist’s role at least to begin but is not to be criticised for that. His skilful bowing suited the work and the cadenza was accomplished if a little conventional.
The delicacy of the second movement again showed the ACO and Sollima to be a good match. Other notable aspects of this part of work were the lovely bass tone of the orchestra before a brisk final movement with no instrument immune from the demands. This was a highlight of the night.
Finally an arrangement of a string quartet by Verdi proved a gem rarely displayed on concert platforms. It was pleasing that the ACO had the stage to itself for this final piece. Not that we had not appreciated the wonderful soloist but this was an opportunity for this fine orchestra to shine in its own right.
The opening Allegro was as dramatic as you might expect from Verdi – and a showpiece for these strings, with a suitably operatic style ending. The delicate waltz of the second movement was in part notable for the viola before the reprise of the main subject. Next, prestissimo, with all players challenged by music that was light but fast. As in the other movements there had a distinct middle section, this time with the cellos playing “solo” to the others’ pizzicato before a reprise.
Finally the “scherzo fuga” provided some interest in the viola again, before there was a very dramatic ending to the concert and the work. Sollima had triumphed as promised – but Tognetti and the ACO rightly enjoyed the final applause.