For its third and final concert of the year, Revolutionary Romance, Richard Gill’s period instrument ensemble the Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra stripped back to chamber forces in a tight programme that allowed the ensemble’s individual voices to shine.
Kicking off the performance was the first movement of Louis Spohr’s 1848 Op.140 String Sextet, written, according to a note the composer wrote in the margin, “at the time of the glorious people’s revolution… and reawakening of Germany.” But despite its genesis amid the turmoil that engulfed Europe during the middle of the 19th century, the work is pastoral, the Allegro Moderato opening with a rich cello and viola melody, adorned by sparkling, bird-like trilling in the violins. A little more uneasiness was introduced as the parts swapped, the violins carrying the shimmering melody while the trilling flourishes became ominous exclamations in the bass, but overall this was a work of pleasant, beautifully textured melodies, which the six ARCO Chamber Soloists led by violinist Rachael Beesley shaped with an exquisitely organic, breath-like phrasing. Mimé Yamahiro-Brinkmann’s cello kept the ensemble moving forward, particularly in her charged walking-bass pizzicato accompaniment, the ensemble surging forward with fluid impetus.
Rachael Beesley, Anna McMichael, Jane Rogers, Mimé Yamahiro-Brinkmann and Nicole van Bruggen. Photo © Nick Gilbert
The heart of this programme, however, was Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet in A Major, K581, which was written against a backdrop of a revolution in instrumental technology rather than politics. Mozart wrote the Quintet for his friend Anton Stadler and the virtuoso’s basset clarinet, a new instrument made for him by Theodor Lotz, which included four lower notes and a bulbous bottom joint that made it look like an instrument more suited for smoking than music making. Stadler’s original instrument later went missing, along with the scores to the Quintet and the Clarinet Concerto (Mozart’s wife Constanze accused Stadler of pawning them) so the instrument played in this concert by period clarinet specialist Nicole van Bruggen had to be recreated based on illustrations and concert reviews.
But the sound it produced was incredible, Van Bruggen coaxing a smooth, caramel timbre from the instrument, the minor, second theme of Mozart’s Allegro magically limpid and the descending runs cascading like water. Joining Van Bruggen were Beesley and Anna McMichael on violins, Jane Rogers on viola and Yamahiro-Brinkmann on cello, who brought an impeccable sense of ensemble and tight-knit comradery to the performance. Van Bruggen’s duets with Beesley in the Larghetto were a highlight, while Bruggen’s sweeping arpeggios in the third movement showed off both her instrument’s low notes and an exquisite evenness of tone up the range. The variations of the finale highlighted the different colours available from this line-up: from combinations of strings to clarinet kicking in bass accompaniments and bubbling solo lines.
Violist Simon Oswell and cellist Natasha Kraemer rejoined the ensemble after interval for an anonymously penned string sextet arrangement of Mozart’s popular Sinfonia Concertante K364. Published in 1808 to feed the robust market of amateur musicians that thrived before the advent of recorded music, the arrangement is egalitarian, dividing the lines more or less equally among the six players.
The pared-down configuration allowed far greater independence among the individual lines of music, the musicians freed up to inject a livelier, chamber music energy into the piece, with more opportunity to push and pull against each other. The sextet brought a velvety soft texture to the Andante, with fine solo lines across the board and while there were a few moments of uneasy tuning – perhaps only noticeable in comparison with the pristinely clean intonation in the Clarinet Quintet – there was plenty of life in this music, and the Presto finale was festively brilliant.
Nicole van Bruggen and ARCO. Photo © Nick Gilbert
Van Bruggen took the stage once more for the encore: a chirpy, bustling clarinet arrangement of the Rondeau from Mozart’s K378 Violin Sonata. With the regular orchestra distilled down to seven musicians, this was a wonderfully intimate offering from the ARCO Chamber Soloists, Van Bruggen’s basset clarinet a particular treat. While still a young ensemble – the 2018 season, announced at this concert, will be the band’s fifth year – ARCO has firmly established itself as a fixture of the HIP music scene in Australia.
The Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra presents Revolutionary Romance at Melbourne Recital Centre September 22 and UKARIA Cultural Centre, Adelaide, September 24.