In a political environment where the Western literary and cultural canon and its relevance to contemporary society is continually being called into question, it was a near-capacity audience at Hamer Hall that affirmed its fervent desire to hear middle-period Beethoven in all its glorious splendour, especially as delivered by our nation’s most youthful and innovative permanent orchestra, the Australian Chamber Orchestra. The program consisted of two staples of the Classical repertoire – Beethoven’s sole Violin Concerto, as well as his Fifth Symphony, a work whose opening at least has entered into mainstream popular consciousness. The challenge for any contemporary ensemble is surely one of breathing new life into works that, while too-easily sounding well-worn today, 200 years ago were deemed revolutionary.
The D major violin concerto was written in 1806 and premiered by Vienna’s leading virtuoso violinist, Franz Clement. In dual roles as both conductor and soloist, Richard Tognetti, took a deliciously expansive, almost understated approach to the opening movement, underscoring its gentle lyricism with a liquid tone that sought to persuade rather than declaim. Tognetti relished his pianissimi, eschewing a too-simple and more overtly Romantic approach, drawing the audience in, escorting them through Beethoven’s genial tonal landscape. Discreet orchestral support from a cohesive choir of period wind instruments meant there was never any difficulty hearing the soloist’s many nuanced inflections. When playing the demanding solo line proved too engrossing, Tognetti ceded conducting responsibilities to his violin lieutenant Helena Rathbone whose directing style was more bare-boned, compared with Tognetti’s idiosyncratic manner which alternated between a minimalist nodding of the head and wildly extravagant flourishes of his bow.
The arrival of the first-movement cadenza however saw a dramatic turn of events. With eyes intent upon his i-pad score, Tognetti unleashed a virtuosic tour-de-force. Although it was a somewhat stylistically incongruous cadenza – by a mish mash of lesser lights, for the great LvB left no cadenza himself – its performance was nonetheless compelling, albeit with the occasional, uncharacteristic meandering intonation.
The slow movement Larghetto was pure poetry. With tastefully inflected vibrato, it was a model of emotional restraint, sustaining a dream-like lyricism throughout before segue-ing into the infectious bucolic charm of the joyous dance-like finale. This was a reading that enthralled from first note to last.
After interval came the mighty Fifth Symphony. With forces more attuned to those Beethoven may have been accustomed to, Tognetti established his interpretative intent from the outset. Powering through the iconic pauses that launch the movement, the opening Allegro con brio was suffused with the energy, momentum and precision that we have come to expect from this dynamic ensemble. Dynamics ranged from the softest of softs to fortes that gave every impression of matching the fullness of a much larger symphony orchestra. Yet another highlight was the clarity and rapid-fire precision of the third movement’s central fugal trio section, a precision that often eludes traditionally larger symphonic forces. The lead-in to the finale – a fantastic crescendo that is surely one of the most joyous transitions in all of music – was deftly handled, culminating in the unbridled exuberance of the colossal, triumphant C major finale that fittingly elicited rapturous applause from an unashamedly enthusiastic audience.
The ACO is unquestionably one of this nation’s cultural treasures, fully deserving of their plentiful audience and attendant ovation. Yet the winner tonight was surely Beethoven and if the ACO’s reading whets the appetite for more, then the Melbourne Symphony coincidentally are to deliver their own Fifth Symphony just a few nights later at the same venue. Too much is never enough.
Tognetti’s Beethoven, ACO, Hamer Hall, November 12, 2018