Written between 1938 and 1946 against the bleak backdrop of Stalin’s Russia and the horrors of the Second World War, Prokofiev’s First Violin Sonata is a dark, brooding work, laced with scalic violin passages the composer described as “wind passing through a graveyard.”
Lorenza Borrani and the Australian Chamber Orchestra. Photo © Christie Brewster
In the hands of Italian violinist Loranza Borrani, leading the Australian Chamber Orchestra on its Beethoven & Prokofiev tour, these passages had a spider web delicacy in chilling contrast to the fiery menace of her robust, edgy timbre that cut across the ACO’s lower strings in the opening movement.
Borrani was last here in 2016, when she led the orchestra in a performance of Schnittke, Schubert and Beethoven, and there is an obvious rapport between the Principal Leader of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe and the musicians of the ACO, who brought out the tenebrous menace she captures in her string arrangement of Prokofiev’s Op. 80 Sonata for Violin and Piano. Borrani brought a yearning melancholy to the lyrical moments that emerge from the grittier energy of the Allegro Brusco, while her sinuous lines in the Andante were chilling at the lower end, her high register penetrating with a laser-like heat. Here the violins and violas couldn’t quite match the coolness of the piano part, instead bringing a gauzy, otherworldly quality to the music. The rhythmic Allegrissimo finale had a taut, furious energy.
The pealing, bell-like textures of British-Bulgarian composer Dobrinka Tabakova’s Such Different Paths, written for Dutch violinist Janine Jansen, opened the second half of the concert, the tour marking the work’s Australian premiere. A torrent of shifting layers and colours – rendered with clarity by the Borrani and the ACO – the work’s pealing slows and transforms, ideas mutate even as they’re presented, before settling into passages of heroic movement and finally ethereal, shimmering harmonics. If this music didn’t dig quite as deep as the Prokofiev, it sustained some of the otherworldly atmosphere created by the Sonata.
In 2016 Borrani led the orchestra in her arrangement of Beethoven’s Opus 131 String Quartet. For this tour she brought Beethoven’s final quartet, the Opus 135. Borrani kept the sparse opening to just the four voices in the Allegretto before allowing the texture to blossom with Beethoven’s music. You lose some of the leanness in this arrangement, but the amplified sense of drama is welcome in the concert hall and suits Borrani’s high-intensity playing. The motoring Vivace had plenty of crunch – and there was no flab in the sound despite the thicker texture, thanks to the ACO’s agile strings and Borrani’s brisk direction. The full string section lovingly cushioned the sound of the Lento, giving it extra sonic depth, before the lower strings opened the final movement, with its Muss es sein? – Must it be? – phrase (Beethoven’s enigmatic marking on the score, later to be answered Es muss sein!) given dramatic insistence. Whether Beethoven intended this question and answer as a ‘coming to terms with fate and death’ moment, a dispute over unpaid bills or simply an internal struggle to get the piece finished and off to his publisher, the added stopping power of extra cellos and a double bass captured its profundity, before the bright pizzicato of the finale and an encore – the quirky Pantomima from Schnittke’s Suite in the Old Style – brought this satisfying concert to its conclusion.
The Australian Chamber Orchestra tours Beethoven & Prokofiev nationally until March 19