City Recital Hall, Angel Place
Tuesday, June 12

The inspired symmetry of three pairs of works – by Mozart, Schubert and two Australian composers – has made the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s national tour with Melbourne-born soprano Danielle de Niese the trump card in Tognetti’s 2012 season so far.

The ACO has always collaborated with in-demand singers – their concerts with Teddy Tahu Rhodes and American soprano Dawn Upshaw are among the most memorable in recent years. They scored a major coup in nabbing de Niese before Lyndon Terracini could capture the globetrotting glamazon for her Australian debut.

With her charismatic stage presence and keen sense of drama, de Niese lived up to the perfumed cloud of marketing hype that surrounds her. But the voice underwhelmed. In Mozart’s Exsultate Jubilate she communicated an infectious joie de vivre, tapping along smilingly in the buoyant Alleluia.

But her sound told another story: the depth and richness of Renée Fleming’s but with none of the agility, finesse or precision in the upper range. It’s hard to believe this is a signature concert piece for de Niese – those creamy melodies should flow like one of her Vivienne Westwood silk gowns, but jittery vibrato and constricted coloratura seemed to bunch up the melodic line as if caught in a sewing machine.

The orchestra saved the day with rousing yet elegant support, bolstered by the warm tone of added winds and brass, which also shone through in the pert, charming Symphony La finta giardiniera K196/121.

De Niese was far more convincing in The Tree of Man, a new work written for her by Carl Vine using an excerpt from the Patrick White novel of the same name. Unravelling the mysteries of the Australian landscape in a slow, long vocal line showcasing her luscious middle register, de Niese called on clear diction and sensitive phrasing to wring every last drop of emotion out of the text without losing its subtlety and simplicity.

Richard Meale’s Cantilena Pacifica cast a similarly haunting mood, the wordless song of Tognetti’s violin floating over luminous, pianissimo string accompaniment.

In striking contrast to Meale’s memorial for a close friend who had succumbed to cancer, Schubert’s lieder Death and the Maiden explores the psychological state of someone taken too soon, moving from fear and desperation to acceptance. De Niese’s dual characterisation of the dialogue between a young dying woman and Death itself was chilling, and shows why she is such a hit on the operatic stage.

The ACO had the last word with Schubert’s sprawling Death and the Maiden quartet (Tognetti’s expanded arrangement), echoing de Niese’s melody in the second movement’s variations on Death’s music from the song. In this tour-de-force conclusion to the concert, the orchestra captured all the restless, driving turbulence of a life force struggling against cruel fate.

Just when I thought the Presto couldn’t get any more intense, the players would surge as one towards a blazing climax or burst from dense thickets of counterpoint. These moments of sheer breathless terror, taut and well-paced, were balanced by lyrical passages bathed in liquid, transcendent tone. In the end, it was without the diva in the gold sequined dress that the ACO really shone.