City Recital Hall, Sydney
May 18, 2018

Chamber music has a lot to compete with on a Friday night in Sydney, but HIP band the Australian Romantic and Classical Orchestra – distilled to their essence in the form of the ARCO Chamber Soloists – rewarded those who came out to City Recital Hall for Classical Melodies with a concert well worth the trip.

ARCO, Australian Romantic & Classical OrchestraThe ARCO Chamber Soloists. Photo © Nick Gilbert

Mozart’s most famous piece of occasional music, Serenade No. 13 K525 or Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, has long suffered for its popularity, but the ARCO musicians with their period instruments gave a performance that shed new light on a work whose concert tradition has been eclipsed by its use as muzak and fodder (in simplified arrangements) for primary school bands. Guest violinist Jakob Lehmann (whose regular gig is concertmaster with Anima Eterna Brugge) struck a beautiful balance with ARCO’s own concertmaster Rachael Beesley, their combined sound a thing of shining beauty at the top of the ensemble with Deirdre Dowling on viola, and cellist Natasha Kraemer and bass Kirsty McCahon setting the lower end ablaze. The phrases of the first movement breathed organically, exuding a natural joie de vivre, while there was pathos in the sighing figures and clean lines of the Romanze. If there was a moment of uneasy intonation in the final cadence of the Menuetto, the scurrying finale brimmed with life, Kraemer and McCahon again driving the music forward, the whole work infused with a light-touch sense of humour.

The Octet for Winds and Strings by now rarely performed Beethoven contemporary Peter von Winter saw the ARCO Chamber Soloists augmented by two more international guests, Spanish flute player Pablo Sosa Del Rosario and Japanese bassoonist Takako Kunugi joining ARCO’s clarinettist Nicole van Bruggen, horns Anneke Scott and Graham Nichols as well as Lehmann, Dowling and Kraemer taking the string parts – and McCahon on bass making the octet a nonet with a heftier low register. The winds were a highlight in this work, Von Winter’s writing – oozing 18th-century operatic comedy and drama – showcasing the various timbres from Del Rosario’s sweet-yet-firm classical flute sound to the complex depth of tone from Kunugi’s bassoon. Van Bruggen’s minor-key melodies over pizzicato bass were particularly beautiful and the horns gave the ensemble a rich warmth. The folk-dance of the finale was a joyous way to cap off the concert’s first half.

ARCO, Australian Romantic & Classical OrchestraThe ARCO Chamber Soloists. Photo © Nick Gilbert

The winds were in the spotlight once more in the second of (the even more rarely heard) Vincenzo Gambaro’s Opus 4 Quartets, a virtuosic showpiece – it draws on operatic ideas but it’s almost circus music – for flute, clarinet, horn and bassoon. Van Bruggen led the charge with flurries of notes, but this was a work that had all four players working hard – Del Rosario dispatched some fine pianissimo phrases amidst the virtuosic rush while the bassoon and horn (demonstrating a remarkable agility for an instrument with no valves) showed themselves just as athletic as the higher-pitched instruments. There were moments when the high-speed performance felt like it was skating close to the edge of danger, but the musicians pulled it off with an exciting accelerando to the finish of the Agitato finale.

If the earlier fare in this concert was a little on the frothy side, it was neatly balanced by a refined accounting of Beethoven’s Opus 29 String Quintet. Violist Simon Oswell joined Lehmann, Beesley, Dowling and Kraemer to form a warm-toned ensemble in which it was clear all players were pulling in the same direction. Their broad phrases were beautifully shaped in the first movement, while Lehmann showed off a winning sound – particularly in his finely spun high register – in the second. Kraemer’s cello bounced along in the Scherzo before digging into the drone-like figures. Lehmann’s flourishes over the shivering strings of the fourth movement gave the music plenty of drama and the ensemble leaned into the silences before a fervid charge to the finale.

The ARCO Chamber Soloists delivered yet another exciting and high-quality chamber music experience in Classical Melodies, shedding light on some unusual repertoire – and showing just what period wind instruments are capable of – and bringing an intelligence and freshness to well-worn favourites.

The ARCO Chamber Soloists perform Classical Melodies again at Melbourne Recital Centre on May 21