Italian cellist plays, dances and sings while taking us (and his instrument) on a whistle-stop tour.

Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House

April 13, 2014

Giovanni Sollima is what can only be described as a one-off. A first-class soloist and specialist in early Italian cello repertoire (his CD of Neapolitan cello concertos on Glossa is an absolute delight), he also composes and, if this concert was anything to go by, is more than happy to pick up his cello (while playing) and go walkabout. It was a pleasure then to catch a maverick in full flight performing with the Australian Chamber Orchestra – a band not averse to a bit of provocative action themselves.

The program was mostly about Italy but also touched on musical travels and musical borrowings. Respighi was the launchpad – perhaps the 20th-century’s arch-borrower – a habitual pilferer of tunes old and new. Three snippets from his Third Suite of Ancient Airs and Dances found the ACO lead by Richard Tognetti in exceptionally sweet tone, as if to emphasise Respighi’s distinctly non-period arrangements of these 16th and 17th century earworms. Playing with a warmth that wouldn’t have disgraced a Hollywood faux-Elizabethan film score, they swooped and soared, even strumming their cellos in imitation of lutes. The final Passacaglia saw them put them through their paces to deliver a virtuoso conclusion.

Sollima then took to the stage to show us why he’s rated one of the very finest classical cellists around. His interpretation of Boccherini’s Third Concerto was bold, challenging and bravura. A compelling figure, Sollima threw himself into the music body and soul, rocking backwards and forwards – eyes now closed, now open. He mastered Boccherini’s rapid figurations and the great deal of activity he requires in the cello’s tricky upper register. Grace notes and decorations were thrown out there with panache, despite one or two hairy corners. The rapt G Minor Adagio was most beautifully done with stunning pianissimo entries and perfectly graduated swells. The communion between soloist and orchestra here was intense ­– the ACO violas and cellos (mostly tacet in this movement) watched Sollima with evident wonder. The finale, in perfect contrast, was all Mediterranean sun and cheeky smiles from the soloist.

The first half was rounded off by Sollima’s own composition, L.B. Files, a sort of musical biopic of Luigi Boccherini himself and a terrific homage from a great cellist of to day to a distinguished forbear. Springing to life from the music that we had just heard, Sollima’s first trick was to pick up his cello and perambulate the entire stage, playing all the time – an acknowledgement of Boccherini as dancer and a reflection of his journey from Italy to Spain. It’s a highly accessible, post-minimalist score (think Michael Nyman meets Max Richter and dances a fandango) with a distinct feel of modern cinema about it. Sollima’s warmth and heart shone through while treating us to some extraordinary effects – spooky glissandi and passages played in an unfeasibly high register with remarkable accuracy. The third movement, which presses into service the bass line from the famous ‘Fandango’ Guitar Quintet, was a riot. Oh, and in the fourth movement, Sollima even sings! Pure, unadulterated pleasure.

The second half saw another glorious display in Haydn’s C Major Cello Concerto.  Producing a beefier sound to reflect Haydn’s more progressive classical sound world, the ACO gave it a brisk work out. Sollima chose a performance with more elegance, less passion as befitted the composer’s Austrian sensibilities. The scampering finale was grandstanding, taken at a great lick by the soloist yet delivering articulation as clear as a bell. Why? Because he could, I guess.

The last item on the agenda was an arrangement (uncredited) for strings of Verdi’s sole contribution to the chamber music repertoire – his late (1873) string quartet. Bulking up the sound gives Verdi a surprisingly Elgarian feel and the work has an unusual fin de siècle nostalgia about it in places. The addition of double bass too adds weight to the proceedings. The performance was, needless to say, impressive.

It’s easy to take the ACO’s apparently effortless tightness of ensemble for granted. This level of musicianship, delivered time and time again, is not easy. It’s the result of hard work and fine leadership (Tognetti was very much first among equals here). It’s watching, and listening, and being in the moment. May there be many more such moments.

Giovanni Solima is on national tour with the ACO until May 6.