The COVID-19 pandemic has put paid to most of the celebrations planned for the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth. The fact that this performance by the Australian Chamber Orchestra and Artistic Director Richard Tognetti (whose own 30th anniversary with the band has likewise been marred by the pandemic) was going ahead at all, albeit in reduced (or “denuded” as Tognetti put it) form, gave the atmosphere in City Recital Hall an added frisson of anticipation – both on stage and in the audience.

Richard TognettiRichard Tognetti in the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s Beethoven 250. Photo © Nic Walker

The shorter program, sans interval – a format that looks to be par for the course for at least the next 12 months – was originally to have comprised works marking 50-year increments from Beethoven’s birth. Here however, it was condensed to three works, each 100 years apart, before finishing with the Cavatina and Grosse Fuge from Beethoven’s Opus 130 String Quartet.

Right from the scurrying opening bars, Tognetti and ACO ensured there was plenty of lilting lyricism alongside the feverish urgency of Schubert’s Quartettsatz, D.703, a movement intended to be part of a complete string quartet, performed here in Tognetti’s own arrangement. Singing upper strings and agile bass infused the piece – written by Schubert in 1820 when the composer was just 23 years old – with incredible vitality.

Skipping ahead 100 years, that lyricism carried into Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending, Tognetti bringing a gorgeous tone to the violin’s plunging and swooping cadenzas, channelling the easy athleticism of a bird in flight over the cushioning strings. While this arrangement by Adam Johnson loses the wind colours of Vaughan Williams’ orchestration, the string sound highlights the piece’s folk music textures – Timo-Veikko Valve’s earthy cello lines were a particular pleasure.

Anna Clyne’s Stride – commissioned by a quartet of orchestras but receiving its debut performances in the hands of the ACO – takes its name from the left-hand octave leaps in the first movement of Beethoven’s Sonata Pathétique. Clyne’s work begins with menacingly creeping – rather than striding – figures, but it swiftly gains momentum revealing a work of fluid energy and febrile, almost delirious excitement. Clyne plunders recognisable gestures from the Beethoven and bends them, chameleon-like, into an array of moods from mad waltzes to chanting cries and stabbing strings à la Bernard Herrmann. It’s a wild ride of a piece, full of humour and virtuosity, and a clever link back to the music celebrated in this anniversary concert.

From a hushed account of the Cavatina from Beethoven’s Opus 130 – a loving performance in which you could almost hear the roots of Vaughan Williams – Tognetti and the band ripped into the Grosse Fuge, the titanic and confounding movement with which Beethoven originally concluded the Quartet. In this arrangement by Tognetti, the musicians brought plenty of crunch to the jagged opening in a bristling performance that made no attempts to smooth over the strange edges that make this music, premiered in 1826, still feel contemporary. The driving energy was such that the transition into the milder Meno mosso e moderato came as a shock – the kind of musical whiplash that elicits a physical reaction from the audience, almost a gasp.

While it was a shame to miss out on George Crumb’s Black Angels of 1970, this shorter program was remarkably effective, Tognetti and the ACO delivering plenty of punch and a powerful reminder of what we’ve been missing with the concert halls closed.

The Australian Chamber Orchestra’s Beethoven 250 is at City Recital Hall until 20 November


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