Sydneysiders missed out on the triumphant Westlake/Sibelius/Janáček concerts presented by the Australian World Orchestra in Melbourne and Canberra this year, under the baton of the band’s Chief Alexander Briger. But they weren’t to be entirely deprived of the fruits of Australia’s orchestral diaspora, with a chamber offering – not unlike 2017’s Chamber 8 – coming to City Recital Hall under the banner of the AWO Six.
Natalie Chee, Daniel Dodds, David Berlin, Tahlia Petrosian and Andra Darzins. Photo supplied
The AWO’s army-of-generals approach – the ensemble is chock-full of Australian concertmasters and principals from orchestras around the world – was reproduced in miniature here, with a crack squad consisting of violinists Natalie Chee (First Concertmaster of the Radio Symphony Orchestra in Stuttgart) and Daniel Dodds (Artistic Director and Leader of the Festival Strings Lucerne), violists Andra Darzins (Professor of Viola at the University of Music, Stuttgart, and Guest Principal for a swathe of German orchestras) and Tahlia Petrosian (violist with the Gewandhaus Orchestra Leipzig) as well as two cellists who live and work in Australia: Melbourne Symphony Orchestra Principal David Berlin and Australian Chamber Orchestra cellist Julian Thompson.
Following a performance of the third movement from Glazunov’s String Quintet by a quartet from the NSW Regional Youth Orchestra, along with tutor and cellist Peter Morrison, the AWO Six (sans Thompson) launched into the buzzing opening of Mendelssohn’s String Quintet No 2. While the frothing energy recalls the youthful excitement of Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture, this is music from 1845, two years before the composer’s death, and it’s easy to hear a layer of melancholy in it, especially in the third movement. The players brought style and verve to the music, from the growl of Berlin’s cello – a propulsive force in the first movement – to spiderweb fine violin lines from Chee, who made short work of the virtuosic part written for the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra’s Ferdinand David, her sound soon taking on a darker vibrancy. The musicians brought a nice buoyancy to the Andante Scherzando, finding a deft balance between playfulness and restraint, delivering the final pizzicati like a wry punchline. The Adagio e lento is the emotional heart of the piece, however, and the players gave a flowing account, full of feeling, with creeping violas and spiralling violin figures building to Chee’s exquisite solo lines over shivering strings. The players weren’t quite quick enough on their page turns to prevent applause from scuppering Mendelssohn’s attacca instruction, but they were soon giving a bustling, fleet-footed account of the finale.
Daniel Dodds, Natalie Chee, David Berlin, Julian Thompson, Andra Darzins and Tahlia Petrosian. Photo supplied
Daniel Dodds was in the hot seat for Brahms’ String Sextet No 2 – begun in 1864 and nicknamed Agathe after the singer Agathe von Siebold, whose name the composer encoded into the score – but it was the rich sound of Petrosian’s viola that set the impassioned music in motion. The players retained some of the buoyancy of the Mendelssohn in this reading, coloured by Brahms’ moody, atmospheric and often ethereal figures, with pealing descents and simmering decrescendos, and the second movement, in particular, had a beguiling glimmer to it, amidst the snaking string lines and the boisterous folk dance of the middle section. Dodds drew out the melodic lines of the Poco adagio, over the sighing breaths of the strings, with a keen, yearning timbre, while a characterful performance of the finale – whose febrile tremolos recalled the Mendelssohn opening – brought the concert to a close with bright energy.
With such accomplished musicians on stage, performing with obvious relish – there’s still a frisson of excitement to the reunions, even though they’ve become a regular event (and the number of AWO musicians in the audience speaks to the collegiate atmosphere fostered) – as well as elegant, if not wildly adventurous, programming, this was a thoroughly enjoyable evening of chamber music.