Tognetti and the ACO+  blew us away: a music review by Fraser Beath McEwing

November 19, 2018 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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As if the announcement that local hero Richard Tognetti was going to perform Beethoven’s violin concerto was not enough to stir the interest of Sydney music lovers, the announcement that he’d beef up the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s 19 regular players with another 30 borrowed from various other orchestras, set their pulses racing. And to top it off, when Tongetti revealed that his hybrid team would throw in Beethoven’s 5th Symphony they came scampering to the box offices.

Richard Tognetti and the ACO

For Sydney, most of the ACO+ performances were shoehorned into the City Recital Hall, but I was lucky enough to hear the one in a filled Opera House yesterday. I came away with a reminder as to why the ACO under Tognetti is regarded as one of the best chamber orchestras in the world. The addition of other players didn’t seem to hinder the precision and fervour of the performance.

This presentation was quite different from the usual symphony orchestra performance. Reading from computer tablets, most of the musicians stood up to play. Tognetti held his rare Guarneri del Gesù violin in his left hand while holding his bow in his right as a baton – being careful not to behead the musicians in front of him. This confirmed the message that he was directing rather than conducting.  In the Beethoven violin concerto, when Tognetti couldn’t direct because he was more than busy with the solo part, Helen Rathbone, principal violinist, filled in with her bow.

The Beethoven concerto was an extraordinary piece of romantic, virtuoso playing by both orchestra and soloist. The interpretation was like no other I’ve heard. Because the number of players was down on the standard size Beethoven orchestra, it gave more air to the solo part. Tognetti played two cadenzas that he’d sewn together from cadenza material written by some of the great violinists of the past, including Vieuxtemps, Novacek, Kreisler, Auer and Laub. With all that input they were quite long, technically threatening, but superbly played, showing that Tognetti could comfortably be an international solo star, but instead has spent nearly 30 years working with and moulding the ACO, exploring many musical genres along the way.

The concerto was full of interesting readings, like Tognetti’s approach to the main theme in the final movement. Most violinists seem to make it a bravura statement, whereas Tognetti made it playful. His trills beggared belief and he was able to produce high notes that were like spears of light through cracks in a wall.

Fraser Beath McEwing

Beethoven’s Symphony No.5 in C minor actually begins with a quaver rest, an odd start, you’d have to say, and I’m always fascinated to see how a conductor will handle something that doesn’t really exist. It seemed to me that Tognetti didn’t bother with it at all, unless I missed a twitch of the shoulder because he shoved his violin under his chin and flew straight into it, taking the orchestra with him. The tempo was as fast as I’d ever heard it played – probably faster. That went for the whole four movements. Only an orchestra of exceptionally skilful players could have achieved clarity and accuracy going at such a clip – which is exactly what they did.

Tognetti divided his time between joining the first violins as one of them, waving his bow when he wanted to hit a coordination bullseye and jumping around in front of the orchestra to nail the big moments. He did a side-on for the final volleys of staccato chords, whipping the air with his bow and bringing the symphony to a stunning end.

The concert played before an age and racially mixed Sunday afternoon audience, but the ACO+ and Tognetti brought them to their feet with some of the most thunderous applause I’d heard at the Opera House in a long time. The orchestra responded by bowing several times in unison.

ACO Opera House concert, 18 November 2018



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