★★★★☆ It may be old music, but Tognetti’s Brahms calls for new ears.

City Recital Hall, Angel Place
August 18, 2015

Over recent years the Australian Chamber Orchestra has taken the opportunity to pump up a bit and tackle some of the repertoire’s bigger beasts. Alongside Mahler, Sibelius and Beethoven, one of their on-going voyages of discovery has been the symphonies of Johannes Brahms and this latest concert series looks at that composer’s Third in tandem with a pair of Mozart works, which similarly benefit from the expanded orchestral line-up.

The Overture to The Magic Flute made a splendid curtain raiser, the three chord opening salvo immediately displaying the weight that the ACO can summon up in the intimate acoustic of the City Recital Hall. Fifty players can make Mozart sound positively Beethovian and it was a fabulous, exciting performance from sonorous start to racing finish, the crisply articulated strings bouncing off the double woodwind sound with tremendous gusto.

Richard Tognetti, leading with violin in hand, segued seamlessly into Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante – effectively a double concerto for violin and viola. This is among the last chances ACO audiences will get to hear Principal Violist Chris Moore playing his anonymously loaned 1610 Maggini viola as the popular musician leaves at the end of the year to take up a job with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. Accordingly there was a distinctly valedictory atmosphere throughout.

Tognetti’s view of the work as a micro-musical opera was born out from the first, its gossamer sprung opening full of dynamic contrasts and imaginative emphases. The two soloists were well matched, their lean tones differentiated perfectly, the light of Tognetti’s violin contrasting with the shade of Moore’s viola (intriguingly Mozart asks for the instrument to be tuned up to take it out of its usual comfort zone). The generally spirited Allegro maestoso was capped by a lovely double cadenza before plunging into the famous Andante. This oft-sampled movement familiar to many from Michael Nyman’s film score to Peter Greenaway’s Drowning by Numbers almost sauntered along taken at a true walking pace, its long, unbroken melodic lines spinning off into eloquent solos for each instrument.

The good-humoured finale (with its occasional clouds passing over the sun and a hint of a hunt somewhere a long way off) had bags of energy and drew well-deserved applause as the two musicians celebrated their soon to be over ‘bromance’ with a hilarious series of awkwardly mistimed kisses.

Speaking with Limelight last week, Richard Tognetti shared an enthusiasm for people prepared to take risks and to try out old music in new ways. The big-ticket Brahms was a perfect example of what he means, forcing many of us (myself included) to rethink some of what we imagine is the right way to do it. The opening set off with a mighty surge, strident wind and brass, the ACO strings potent as ever. Tognetti has plenty of original ideas as to how the various sections might go, and although some of the gear changes felt extreme it was fascinating to hear someone rethinking familiar ground. With Brahms, the importance of blend is often paramount and the smaller forces here rendered the job trickier than usual, occasioning the odd problem balancing wind against strings. Still, when it took off it was a thrilling ride with braying horns (excellent all night) and thunderous timpani leading the pack.

The Andante featured a more homogenised wind and string sound, the two sections duetting highly effectively and Tognetti teasing out the often pungent harmonic textures. The main theme of the third movement was given more rubato than is the norm, lending it a sweeter, more Viennese feel. The finale took off like a racehorse with the ACO’s dynamic strings in full flight a thing to behold. The noble heroics of wind and brass were grippingly offset, and with a higher dymanic level, blend was less of an issue. Here, all the ideas paid dividends, compelling you to listen to Brahms with new ears and, one imagines, fulfilling Tognetti’s artistic credo.

The ACO plays Mozart and Brahms on tour across Australia until August 26.