Hamer Hall, Arts Centre Melbourne
October 1, 2018

For most of us who are non-violinists, the habit of being a non-violinist is something that seldom barrels its way to the forefront of our consciousness. We view our non-violinist condition with the same fundamental ennui – punctuated by the occasional twinge of regret – that we feel about being non-lottery-winners, about being non-supermodels, or about lacking the ability to waggle our ears. Being a purely negative state of mind, the condition scarcely counts as a state of mind at all.

Then someone like Ilya Gringolts arrives. Whereupon, all at once, the non-violinist condition metamorphoses from a trivial minus into an active cause for heartfelt gratitude. Because nine violinists out of 10, if confronted with Gringolts’ brilliant mastery of his instrument, would feel envious almost to the point of nausea.

It should surprise no-one that various other string-players have spoken with awe of Gringolts’ talents. So must Fritz Kreisler have felt when, on hearing the young Jascha Heifetz, he told an assembly of fellow master-fiddlers: “Gentlemen, we might as well break our violins over our knees.” Or, to quote the only slightly exaggerated PR copy that accompanied the late keyboard pyrotechnician Raymond Lewenthal on his 1972 Australian visit: “The shots you heard were the sounds of other pianists killing themselves.” (Boldface in original.)  While no weapons were audibly discharged at the Hamer Hall on October 1, one half-feared that certain virtuoso flourishes by Gringolts could indeed prompt suicidal gunfire.

Gringolts’ platform deportment nowhere hinted at carpet-chewing demagogy. Calm and poised in appearance (his neat goatee making him resemble Scriabin’s younger brother), he blended in completely with his ACO colleagues in the opening work, CPE Bach’s three-movement String Symphony in C. Discursive, wild, plethoric in its ideas, scorning recognisable coherence, this music suggested an 18th-century analogue to Barnaby Joyce’s syntax.  It would challenge even a conductor who did nothing except conduct, but Gringolts directed it – and everything else on the program – while playing.

The ACO here sounded a little below its very best level. A very few slightly ragged entries, a few (more bothersome) instances of undernourished tone in soft passages, implied that fatigue might have been operating. No major mishaps, of course, and much to savour still, notably the brief but frightening roars of cello and double-bass thunder in CPE Bach’s central Adagio.

To Gringolts’ dazzling assurance in Paganini’s First Violin Concerto (here heard in a string-orchestra-only version), no mere reviewer can do justice. Surely the sports world’s equivalent of such assurance would be doing handstands on a unicycle while singing the national anthem backwards.

Hair-raisingly accurate double-stopped thirds, sixths, and tenths; the most vertiginous flautando bravura (have those three words ever shared a sentence before?); complete freedom from timbral harshness: these were simply Gringolts’ most obvious virtues. Little wonder that the audience erupted into applause after the first movement, through sheer excitement that defied suppression. Yet still more remarkable than Gringolts’ stupendous technique was his lyricism. Although Paganini is not normally credited with great melodic invention, the good tunes in all movements showed that if he had turned to opera he could have rivalled Rossini.

After interval, Gringolts returned to his unobtrusive role as first among equals in a short Vivaldi concerto (561 in the Ryom catalogue) for the bizarre – but effective – combination of violin and two cellos. It would be agreeable to think that for this work, primarily chatty but with considerable strenuousness, Vivaldi had in mind three special favourites among the girls whom he taught at Venice’s Pietà.

The concerto’s energy made it a fitting prologue to Bartók’s Divertimento. (Incidentally, can any piece since Rossini’s Petite Messe Solennelle bear a less convincing title than does this reliably anguished and fierce danse macabre, composed in little more than a fortnight as World War II loomed?) Here, whatever weariness might have afflicted the ACO at the concert’s beginning had gone. The players seemed to be benefiting from a second wind, with crisper ensemble and wider dynamic range than before, particularly in the finale’s frenzied hoedown. In the slow movement, the lower strings’ hoarse laments and the climax’s trill-encrusted consecutive fifths retained all the power to shock that they must have possessed almost eight decades ago. Somehow, though, a fundamental dignity characterised the playing, for all its exuberance. This listener’s dominant emotion at the concert’s end was not panic but satisfaction. Let us hope that Gringolts can be persuaded to return to Australia very soon.

Ilya Gringolts and the Australian Chamber Orchestra perform in Perth on October 3, Sydney on October 5 & 7, and Brisbane on October 8