ACO: Bach Violin Concertos

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Published: 6th April, 2017


It would be hard to devise a more enjoyable program than the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s latest offering: Bach Violin Concertos. It was a must-hear for all lovers of the violin and devotees of the incomparable Johann Sebastian.

ACO produces one of the most interesting and informative printed programs for its patrons to be found nowadays. In an era when smart phones are ubiquitous on public transport, the sight of three separate tram commuters engrossed in their programs as they travelled home after the concert is evidence of this. It is less surprising given the nature of the content.

Despite being Artistic Director and solo violinist, Richard Tognetti’s stage personality is relatively restrained, but his commitment to the music is patently obvious both through his playing and the way he writes about it. His deep personal connection to Bach’s music are presented in terms of his developing musical understanding over many years and his relationships with those who have led the world in exposing music lovers to Bach’s works and Baroque music in general.

Bach’s flexibility in rewriting works for different instruments lends itself to Tognetti’s urge to “adapt, transform and really experiment with Bach’s music”. The Preludio from his Violin Partita No. 3 was an ideal aperitif for what was to follow. From the first note Tognetti’ s violin startled with an almost uncanny brilliance and continued with an exuberant display of dexterity against plucked strings. A silvery upper voice contrasted with a warm, throaty lower voice in a cascade of notes demanding precision bowing.

Then began the progression of violin concertos building from one to three violins interspersed with a couple of Haydn symphonies and the Sarabande from Bach’s Cello Suite No. 4. Tognetti continued in similar vein for Bach’s Violin Concerto No. 2 in E major, providing clean articulation for the more intricate flourishes of the outer movements and sensitively phrased singing tone in the soulful, almost sobbing Adagio.

Helena Rathbone joined him for the Concerto for 2 Violins in D minor. A sprightly pace made for a sparkling opening Vivace as the two contrasting voices played with each other. The sublime second movement was just that. Sometimes Tognetti brought his silvery thread of sound down to what must have been almost inaudible in some parts of Hamer Hall, but this favouring of an extreme pianissimo made a surging emotional climax all that more heart-stopping when it came.

Rathbone projected such a strong sense of grounded assurance that listeners could have been persuaded she would be quite capable of running the country. Not only does she play with commitment and confidence, her warmth and obvious love of the music gave a work that is pretty well a rite of passage for all aspiring violinists new freshness and dynamism.

Much less familiar is Bach’s Concerto for 3 Violins, reconstructed from a concerto for three harpsichords. With the addition of Satu Vänskä we had a line-up of three violin virtuosi with probably the three most important violins in Australia: a 1743 Guarneri del Gesù, a 1759 Guadagnini and a 1728/29 Stradivarius (Vänskä has the only Stradivarius violin in Australia). The personalities of both instruments and players complemented each other perfectly as their voices evolved from each other, interwove and in turn became featured soloists. The central Adagio was particularly affecting with its long singing phrases of melancholy lament, so eloquent that a specific text seemed to be implied. It was not just in the meditative Sarabande that Timo-Veikko Valve made his mark. Always an energetic and expressive player he sometimes took the role of featured continuo instrument in this concerto.

Added to the attraction of Bach’s music were Haydn’s Symphonies Nos. 27 and 22. Early works, they abounded with youthful spirit and inventive creativity. Featuring two horns, the first got off to an exhilarating start. The muted violins above a pizzicato bass of the rocking Andante: siciliano then conjured scenes of distant, slightly melancholy serenading. Any members of the audience in danger of being lulled to sleep would have been revived by the rollicking finale.

Haydn’s rare addition of a pair of cors anglais to the pair of horns made for further interest in what has been nicknamed The Philosopher symphony. After the stately tread of the opening Adagio, which would not have been out of place in Sarastro’s Magic Flute domain, a couple of lively Presto movements surrounding the Menuet and Trio brought the concert to its energising conclusion.

Certain of Tognetti’s choices, such as some super fast speeds and exaggerated dynamics, may not be to everybody’s taste but there is no denying that ACO performances are always gripping and executed with exceptional virtuosity. In this celebration of Bach’s music, Tognetti persuaded us that we were indeed “listening to the beating heart of God”. Who could possibly ask for more?

 This performance at Hamer Hall was the opening night of an Australia-wide tour of five states.

Arts Centre Melbourne, VIC, Sunday 2 April, 2.30pm

Arts Centre Melbourne, VIC, Monday 3 April, 7.30pm

Adelaide Town Hall, SA, Tuesday 4 April, 7.30pm

Perth Concert Hall, WA, Wednesday 5 April, 7.30pm

City Recital Hall, NSW, Saturday 8 April, 7.00pm

Sydney Opera House, NSW, Sunday 9 April, 2.00pm

QPAC, QLD, Monday 10 April, 7.00pm; 

City Recital Hall, NSW, Tuesday 11 April, 8.00pm

City Recital Hall, NSW, Wednesday 12 April, 7.00pm