Quite apart from the pleasure of seeing so many familiar faces on the Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater podium, the inclusion of the Australian Chamber Orchestra as part of the 2019 Great Performers program was, in the words of the great W.S. Gilbert, a case of “very glad to hear my opinion backed by a competent authority.” Not that the ACO are strangers on the international scene, being well-supported regular visitors to New York and currently in the middle of a three-year residency at London’s Milton Court, but on this showing it was easy to see why they are in such demand, both as an ensemble of excellence and a breath of fresh air.

Australian Chamber Orchestra, New York Richard Tognetti and the Australian Chamber Orchestra. Photo © Stephanie Berger

If matters looked a little cerebral on paper – Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 12 sandwiched between two of the greatest works to embrace the fugue in the history of music – in reality it was nothing of the sort. Richard Tognetti’s imaginative arrangements of the first four movements from Bach’s The Art of Fugue are anything but stuffy, and his 1998 orchestration for string ensemble of Beethoven’s late B Flat Major String Quartet (complete with its original Grosse Fuge finale) manage to saddle up a pair of potential warhorses and take them for a trot around the freshest of paddocks.

Clean and lean, the signature ACO tone was on display in the Bach, the music unerringly on the note despite a negligible use of vibrato. The acid test with Bach’s counterpoint is to give it life and let it breathe, and their elegant and searching reading of Contrapunctus I did just that, with plenty of rubato heading into the lightly leavened account of Contrapunctus II. An icy staccato brought a wintry quality to Contrapunctus III, before playful pizzicati and nifty vocals that would put the Swingle Singers to shame lent bags of charm to the concluding Contrapunctus IV. You could feel the hall relax into this imaginative re-interpretation of a classic that in the wrong hands can come across as overly academic.

Australian Chamber Orchestra, New YorkInon Barnatan and the Australian Chamber Orchestra. Photo © Stephanie Berger

Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 12 falls into the period when the composer found himself writing Viennese works in which he describes passages “from which the connoisseur alone can derive satisfaction; but that are written in such a way that the less learned cannot fail to be pleased, though without knowing why.” Whatevs…

Whichever way you look at it, it’s a real charmer, especially in the practised hands of American/Israeli pianist Inon Barnatan. Opening with a beautifully sprung introduction and with boldly defined interjections between solo sections, this was an impressively organic partnership bursting with personality. Barnatan is a master of lyricism, injecting a sing-song sense of joie de vivre into his lively playing of the Allegro. Surprisingly muscular contributions from the ACO in the Andante, plus their warm support of the soloist in the quieter passages, delivered plenty of light and shade. The Rondeau Finale was beautifully articulated by all concerned, the ACO strings packing a punch with rich, meaty tone. A real sense of fun, with soloist and ensemble bouncing beautifully off of each other, made for a winning conclusion.

Australian Chamber Orchestra, New YorkRichard Tognetti, Inon Barnatan and the Australian Chamber Orchestra. Photo © Stephanie Berger

Beethoven’s Op. 130 String Quartet, the alternative finale of which became his last completed work, is one of the composer’s most searching statements, a six-movement work that ranges far and wide, from its sublime Cavatina to three contrasting evocations of the spirit of the dance. The richness of tone on display here gave the opening a Brahmsian weight, but what makes Tognetti’s arrangement so interesting is the way it varies the diet by divvying up the four lines between solo contributions and full ensemble. The opening Allegro thus became a real debate packed with widely contrasting dynamics.

The Presto, on the other hand, emerges with an almost Tchaikovskian sense of romance, highlighting Beethoven’s essential modernity. The third movement could be straight out of the Russian master’s Mozartiana, while the tipsy hiccupping in the dancelike Fourth Movement delivered a great deal of fun and games as the melody was passed from pillar to post. For all of the sense of freedom in the ACO’s interpretation, there was a great deal of razor-sharp ensemble on display.

Hearing the great Cavatina played on 18 strings, it’s easy to see how it influenced Wagner, himself a passionate devotee of Beethoven’s late quartets. The magical transition from hushed reverence into the dramatic opening of the Grosse Fuge was electrifying and followed by a radically edgy account of one of Beethoven’s toughest utterances. Although some sections were taken at a breath-taking lick, Tognetti gave it satisfying structural variety by managing to find room for some welcome oases of calm amidst all the turbulence.

The ensemble’s North American tour continues, with Paul Lewis alternating with Barnatan in the Mozart. Audiences here in the US should count themselves lucky if they are able to grab a couple of hours with Australia’s greatest musical export. As they say, #AussieAussieAussie.

The Australian Chamber Orchestra are on tour in the US until April 14