Hamer Hall, Arts Centre Melbourne
March 18, 2018

Russian violinist Alina Ibragimova, ominously clad in funereal black, exerted deft control, a constant and powerful presence as she led 16 strings of the Australian Chamber Orchestra on Sunday afternoon in Melbourne. The theme of her program is described as “loss and death”, sometimes combining glimpses of “happiness and hope”. She doesn’t explain why or how, letting the music speak for itself.

The performance presented a finely tuned, mature and full-bodied string ensemble with excellent rapport in evidence in Hamer Hall, a noteworthy achievement given the number of guest musicians present. Guest principal double bass Tim Gibbs (principal double bass of London’s Philharmonia Orchestra) particularly made a fine impression from start to finish.

Alina Ibragimova, ACO, Death and the MaidenAlina Ibragimova and the Australian Chamber Orchestra. Photo © Zan Wimberley

Soon realising that he had a “knockout hit” on his hands with the second movement of the String Quartet Op. 11 composed in 1936, Samuel Barber arranged it for string orchestra renaming it in the process Adagio for Strings. It has since become his most famous, most admired and most often-performed composition, renowned for its emotional force. Acknowledging that the string orchestra arrangement is usually performed slower than the string quartet original, this ACO performance was very slow indeed. Its smooth-as-silk lush opening recalled Ralph Vaughan William’s Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, composed nearly 30 years earlier. The work’s emotional climax lacked impact, although in quieter passages, the voice of the viola section purred luxuriously.

The odd man out in this dark program was Mozart’s Adagio and Fugue in C minor, K. 546, the fugue originally composed as a keyboard composition, K. 426. With its French Overture flourish in the opening movement the minor fugue was stridently realised.

Sharing the middle name of his predecessor, Karl Amadeus Hartmann’s Concerto funebre for violin and string orchestra (1939, revised 1959) was written in a state of darkest despair in Munich at the apex of the rise of Nazi Germany on the eve of WWII. It began life under the title Musik der Trauer ‘Music of mourning’. Ibragimova, now soloist, has been closely associated with this work for many years and gave an informed, impassioned and tellingly moving account. Its Introduction (Largo) opened with Shostakovichian expansive stasis and the bleakness of fallen snow. Melodic fragments from Czech Hussite hymns, the nationalistic music of Smetana and Russian Revolutionary song are heard in turn. Hartmann’s tonally centred yet chromatically saturated music comes to fruition in the fourth movement Choral (Langsamer Marsch) where we heard a sustained hymn before a final, desperate and concluding scream.

Following the extravagant complexity and virtuosity of the Hartmann, and in complete contrast, the calm, silent and chilly, monastic prayerfulness of Arvo Pärt soothed. The composer describes his music as “like an upbeat suspended in the air, waiting for the phrase to start”.  His Silouan’s Song (1991) is a meditation on Saint Silouan (1866–1938), a Russian-born mystic who lived as a monk on Mount Athos and was canonised in 1987. In its own time, it slowly meditates on his prayerfulness.   “My soul yearns after the Lord” is the work’s subtitle, a translation of Psalm 42:1 “Like as the hart desireth the water-brooks: so longeth my soul after thee, O God.” The ACO provided an effective, though sometimes impatient performance, the necessary luxurious stasis and deep silence between breaths, stops and starts not fully met. Pärt’s music is utterly non-narrative and non-linear. It exists, like a static musical icon.

Franz Schubert composed his 14th String Quartet in D minor, Death and The Maiden, towards the end of his very short life. He had twice before written Lieder based on the theme of death claiming innocence too early in settings of poems by Goethe and Matthias Claudius and now he had to face his own death. The theme of Love and Death, Eros and Thanatos became a recurring topic in the arts throughout the 19th-century, culminating in the Liebestod of Tristan and Isolde, and still active in the 20th-century, as shown by the reproduction of Egon Schiele’s work in the printed program. While the subject was acutely relevant to Schubert, I feel the arrangement by Richard Tognetti loses much of the intimacy of the original, written for four strings. Decorative gesture was highlighted to a new importance when played by multiple instruments. Climaxes were powerful, though oddly so. It was all good, but to my mind not what the composer intended, and a sameness prevailed. The chamber section of the whimsical Scherzo (Allegro molto) only emphasised this lapse. Though the final Presto, lacked the subtleties of lilt and charm, it was conveyed with fiery ebullience.

The Australian Chamber Orchestra’s Alina Ibragimova: Death and the Maiden tours Sydney and Melbourne until March 26