Alina Ibragimova has achieved a great deal in her 30 odd years as violinist, ensemble director and recording artist. Despite making England her home and in 2016 receiving an MBE for services to music, her personality onstage is overwhelmingly Russian; muscular, commanding and more than a little dour. This didn’t seem to dampen the audience enjoyment however as a not-quite-packed Hamer Hall responded generously. Ibragimova’s second foray in 10 years to our shores certainly plumbed the depths of melancholy and tragedy in the ACO’s final concert in this national tour, themed “Death and the Maiden”. Never have I seen the members of the ACO so serious, and as intent on keeping up with the Guest Director.
It was surprising how differently the ACO came across in Hamer Hall as opposed to the Melbourne Recital Centre, which tends to acoustically sandpaper the edges. The more revealing acoustic of the Hamer Hall emphasised Ibragimova’s rhythmic antagonism, most notably with the signature work, Schubert’s ”Death and the Maiden” Quartet (arranged by ACO Director Richard Tognetti).
Ibragimova is a driven performer whose demeanour and steeliness tested the bounds of entertainment more than once. Was she enjoying herself? Hard to say, and perhaps utterly unimportant. Still, the overall impression was that the members of the ACO were happy with the performance, as was the audience.
Barber’s Adagio for Strings Op.11 stole the show in the first half, and from the outset the ensemble did well in blending the lines seamlessly, especially between violins and violas. When finally the celli entered, lead by Timo-Veikko Valve with guest bassist Tim Gibbs (on loan from London’s Philharmonia Orchestra), the flow quickened, immensely satisfying to this listener.
Some intonational discrepancies were noted, however these were minor. Alina Ibragimova purposely withheld the harmonic resolutions at the ends of phrases, which rather than fomenting a clichéd predictability, added an even greater depth. It’s no wonder this music lends itself to the filmic, notably in Oliver Stone’s Vietnam movie Platoon.
Mozart’s Adagio and Fugue in C minor K. 546 (the most tragic of keys) set the tone opening the concert. A pared-back vibrato unfortunately revealed some messy entries and exits in the violins, and was coupled with the dreaded acoustic lag from the bass end. The kernel of the second movement fugue continued just until tedium set in, with a rush of faster notes from the violins hurtling towards a convincing ending.
Ibragimova has recorded all of the violin music of the under-performed German composer Karl Amadeus Hartmann. A brave anti-fascist in 1930s Germany, Hartmann initially composed his Concerto funebre for violin and string orchestra in 1939, and smuggled it out of Germany for a premiere in Switzerland. Ibragimova encapsulated the desperation of the time in the sheer force of her attacking bow. I was hardly surprised it put her strings out of tune. A relentless percussive quality in the unison strings brought to mind harbingers of doom. In contrast, Arvo Pärt’s Silouan’s Song came as close to revelation as anything in the first half, typically floaty and minimal.
Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” is what the audience seemed to be waiting for, indeed, needing after the desolation of the first half. Ibragimova ramped the ntensity up to 11, always bolting forward in her fast semiquaver passages, and the rest of the ensemble did a sterling job of staying astride.
In the second movement Andante con moto Ibragimova was finally alone, as Tognetti’s arrangement cleverly allowed some respite from the multiple-players-per-part model. Ibragimova’s golden tone shone through and this was the highlight of the evening alongside the splendid quartet playing from ACO’s section leaders. I’m looking forward to hearing this arrangement again, hopefully next time with Tognetti in the Leader’s position.