City Recital Hall, Sydney
August 19, 2018

How often do you hear Puccini on gut strings? The Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra has carved out a niche for itself bringing a HIP sensibility and period instruments – not to mention fine playing – to the music of both the Classical and Romantic Periods, and it was the Romantic that took the spotlight in Poetical Melodies. Steel strings only began making inroads at the end of the 19th century, and gut really only fell out of favour when World War I disrupted the traditional markets, but it’s only recently that we have been getting opportunities to hear Romantic works played on period instruments, and ARCO is one of the bands leading the charge. It was enlightening, therefore, to hear a program spanning Mendelssohn and Van Bree to Dvořák, Grieg and Puccini performed more or less as the composers might have imagined them in their lifetimes.

Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra, Poetical MelodiesThe Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra. Photo © Nick Gilbert

The precocious Felix Mendelssohn wrote 12 string symphonies between the age of 12 and 14. If the 10th – with which ARCO opened Poetical Melodies – feels like juvenilia, it is only in comparison with the stunning Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream the composer wrote at a far more advanced 17 years of age. But there is plenty of the mature composer in this work, which the orchestra – led by violinist and director Rachael Beesley – delivered with a lush, well-blended string sound and plenty of fizzing energy to match Mendelssohn’s later fairy music.

The remainder of the concert’s first half was given over to Grieg, whose music sounds earthier on gut strings, but no less romantic in the hands of Beesley and her musicians, who performed his two song arrangements from his Opus 34 Elegiac Melodies. Hjertesår (The wounded heart) swayed ominously while Våren (The last spring) was wistful and nostalgic, warm viola melodies offset by glistening high violins.

From these lyrical pieces the orchestra ramped the intensity up a notch or two with Grieg’s suite From Holberg’s Time – the Norwegian composer’s fascination with the Enlightenment poet sparked by a commission for a cantata to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Holberg’s birth – which saw the strings take on a more solid sound, violas motoring with gritty energy. It was only in the Grieg that orchestra’s precision was anything less than immaculate, but the passionate performance made for wonderful listening. The sound of the cellos – dark and penetrating – in the Sarabande was particularly compelling while the jaunty final Rigaudon saw Beesley duelling brightly with Principal Violist Simon Oswell across the pizzicato of the orchestra.

Rachael Beesley. Photo © Nick Gilbert

The concert’s second half opened on a lighter, comic note, with ensembles arrayed cross the stage for Johannes van Bree’s Allegro in D minor for Four String Quartets, which saw motifs race across from one end of the stage to the other and back in a kind of deconstructed string quartet, punctuated by the occasional, but powerful, tutti. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of this performance was hearing the variety of string quartet flavours that emerge once the texture of an otherwise very unified string section is teased apart.

Giacomo Puccini’s Crisantemi (Chrysanthemums) – written in response to the death of the Duke of Savoy, King Amadeo I of Spain – was the most modern work on the program, penned in 1890, first for string quartet then later arranged by Puccini for string orchestra. Here the orchestra demonstrated a penchant for drama, from the brooding lower strings to a more flowing urgency in material Puccini would later incorporate into his opera Manon Lescaut.

With its disarming freshness and innocence, Czech melodist Dvořák’s Serenade for Strings was an apt finish to a melody-themed concert. From the lilting first movement through to the lively Scherzo (which drew a thread back to the Mendelssohn at the beginning of the program in its thrumming energy) to the vibrant, folk-infused Finale, this was joyous playing – the quirky crescendo that preludes the return of material from the first movement was handled by the musicians with smiling panache.

The Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra performs Poetical Melodies at Melbourne Recital Centre on August 22