The Australian Chamber Orchestra opened Leonskaja & Mozart with a work by a fictional composer. In Strauss’ final opera, Capriccio, a poet, Olivier, and composer, Flamand, vie for the amorous attentions of the countess Madeleine – Flamand writing a string sextet for her birthday. But unlike Adrian Leverkühn’s Violin Concerto in Mann’s Dr Faustus, real-life audiences actually get to hear this work, which forms an overture to the opera and had its premiere as a concert piece before Capriccio itself was performed. With Roman Simović as Guest Leader, the ACO presented the sextet in arrangement by the very much non-fictional ACO Principal Cellist Timo-Veikko Valve.

Flamand’s (or Strauss’) sextet is divided into three very clearly demarcated sections: exposition, development and recapitulation. Valve retained the lighter sextet texture in the exposition – string lines swelling and dovetailing – before the full ensemble rumbled to life in the dramatic development. Simović, feet firmly planted on the stage, sparred pyrotechnic virtuosity with violist Ben Ullery – on loan from the Los Angeles Philharmonic – and Valve’s passionate cello solo shone before the work receded to its tranquil denouement.

Described as a lioness of the keyboard, Elisabeth Leonskaja entered unpretentiously onto the stage along with the rest of the orchestra to perform Mozart’s Ninth Piano Concerto, the so-called Jeunehomme, K.271. The nickname for this concerto, ‘young man’ has since been discredited in favour of Jenamy ­– the surname of the pianist, Victoire Jenamy, for whom Mozart composed the work. Mozart and his father contributed in no small part to the confusion about this name – both left wildly different misspellings in their correspondence, baffling scholars for many years.

The orchestra opens the concerto grandly, but rather than waiting for the orchestral tutti the pianist enters almost immediately – much in the same way she came on stage – Leonskaja dispatching the flourishes with graceful polish. She brought a rounded ease to the concerto, music pouring from her fingers in smooth arcs as she sung with the horns and her first-movement cadenza glistened. Her sound was so refined that at times the bright energy of the strings felt slightly overcharged in the tuttis before they gave way to Leonskaja’s exquisite solos.

She traced clear lines in the second movement, her rubato leaving the listener hanging, almost begging, on each note and her cadenza was full of anguished counterpoint and plaintive sighing motifs. The finale sparkled with brilliance, Leonskaja savouring the slightly quirky joy of Mozart’s writing – the lioness at play, but no less powerful. For an encore she played the expressive Allegretto from Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No 17, nicknamed ‘The Tempest’.

The opening chords of Beethoven’s String Quartet Op.127 – the first of his late quartets – was bolstered with an extra power and gravitas in Valve’s arrangement for string orchestra. The larger forces amplified the already dramatic figuration before the texture was stripped back to the original’s one-a-part. Valve harnessed the string orchestra’s capacity for volume, augmenting the crescendos and climaxes without being afraid to sketch out the more delicate lines with a smaller ensemble. The lush texture of the doubled parts gave the second movement warmth, while Maxime Bibeau’s bass gave extra impetus to the cello lines and resonance to their pizzicatos. The finale was full of energy, but it was in the Scherzo, however, that the larger forces really came into their own – whirlwind string lines delivered with typical ACO-clarity bristling with excitement.


Leonskaja & Mozart tours Australia until September 7

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