Elisabeth Murdoch Hall, Melbourne Recital Centre
March 22, 2018

Australia has happily enjoyed an exciting development in historically informed performance practice (HIPP) over recent decades. Following European precedence and research, there has been a sea change in pedagogy towards the interpretation of pre-Romantic music. Young keyboardists may choose to learn harpsichord rather than piano, guitarists the lute, while violinists are mastering the possibilities of technique, expression and affect from earlier manifestations of their instrument. Several specialist Baroque ensembles have developed, even an opera company. And now we have this eager young ensemble dedicated to performing music from 1750 as it may have first sounded.

Conducted by its artistic director and founder (in 2013), veteran Australian music educator Richard Gill, Pastoral Melodies – Idyllic & Tempestuous by the Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra (ARCO for short, and formerly orchestra seventeen88) in Melbourne comprised an Austro-German program of two Classical works and two Romantic.

Richard Gill, ARCORichard Gill and the Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra. Photo © Nick Gilbert

Mendelssohn’s alluring and fantastical Hebrides Overture, Op. 26 Fingal’s Cave commenced proceedings, followed by Brahms’s Fünf Gesänge (Five Songs), Op. 104 – sung by Melbourne’s vocal ensemble Polyphonic Voices alone – and Mozart’s Missa brevis No 7 in C major K. 258, sometimes spuriously referred to as the Spaur Mass. Lastly we heard Beethoven’s well-known Symphony No 6 in F major, Op. 68 Pastoral.

The program’s general theme was nature and how its changing seasons, beauty and unpredictability may act as metaphor for the various pleasures and endurances we may encounter. There is a sense of awe and majesty, yet deep loneliness in Mendelssohn’s evocative Hebrides Overture, while Brahms’s Five Songs speak of autumn and winter alongside lost love, fading beauty and passing youth.  Beethoven’s elegy to nature in his Pastoral Sixth Symphony describing a sojourn in the countryside further emphasises both the invigorating joys and stormy vicissitudes of mortal existence.

Given that ARCO is a young orchestra – and not a full-time one – this first performance in their opening tour for 2018 understandably showed rough edges that doubtless will improve with its second performance in Sydney on Sunday afternoon. On Thursday night in Melbourne there were some issues with balance and rapport, rhetoric and phrasing. In sum, it was all long on youthful enthusiasm and short on maturity and finesse.

Fingal’s Cave on the southern tip of Scotland’s Staffa Island was a popular attraction for Romantic artists, musicians and writers drawn by its remoteness, eerie acoustics and awesome hexagonal basalt rock pillar formations. Along with Mendelssohn, J M W Turner, Sir Walter Scott, and William Wordsworth all visited this wild and distant outcrop. Mendelssohn wrote this concert overture in 1830 as a stand-alone composition designed to vividly set a dramatic scene. Opening in brooding B minor the performance evoked a feeling of the tempestuous and heavy swell of waves, a sense of the spume of sea spray and the immense scale and range of this panorama.

Brahms was in his mid-50s when he composed his Fünf Gesänge and they convey, through some adventurous harmonic expansion and exploration, a sense of gentle trepidation that his best years may well be behind him. Setting texts by contemporaries Friedrich Rückert, Max Kalbeck and Klaus Groth, these five short works speak of the anxiety of ardent love along with the melancholy experienced in conceding that youth is well past. Polyphonic Voices comprises some of Melbourne’s well-known choral singers, some of whom are part of several other ensembles and many originating from university college chapel choirs. This performance showed that they were well prepared in rehearsal by their artistic director, Michael Fulcher. If there was overall a lack of choral body or core and texture to this ensemble’s sound they compensated with subtle shading and tuning.

ARCO, Richard GillRichard Gill and the Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra. Photo © Nick Gilbert

Mozart’s brief and uncomplicated Missa brevis No 7 followed with abundant lyrical expression and concentrated intensity. Its Classical refinement delighted, though the performance was often coarse. Soloists were drawn from the choir: Kirsty Biber (soprano) has a pleasant and fresh voice that was perfect for this repertoire, though suffered from tuning problems throughout. Christopher Watson (tenor) was clearly the mature and experienced vocalist in the quartet, which also included alto Elizabeth Chong and bass Tim Matthews Staindl.

The fresh, airy and largely gentle simplicity of Beethoven’s Symphony No 6, composed between 1802 and 1808 is remarkable, given that it was written in tandem with the radically turbulent Fifth. However, the Allegro ma non troppo that should awaken us to cheerful feelings on arrival in the countryside was instead unrelentingly laboured. The second movement Andante molto mosso, with its aquatic rippling in duple time accompanied by string pizzicato, lacked tranquillity, though the free time birdsong delighted.

The ensemble was effective in the two rustic Trio dances in the third movement Allegro,a merry gathering of country folk’. The fourth movement Allegro with dramatic thunder and storm was utterly terrifying and violent. The dozy calm appeasement announced by oboe led to the Allegretto, where the clean fragrance of newly fallen rain in the air brought bucolic bliss and harmony restored in the shepherd’s song finale with a return to duple time in F major.

The Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra performs Pastoral Melodies with the Sydney Chamber Choir at City Recital Hall, Sydney, on March 25