★★★★★ Quintessentially Italian concert celebrates the sensory pleasures of music.

Llewellyn Hall, Canberra
June 25, 2016

The Australian Chamber Orchestra’s Sequenza Italiana, featuring Sicilian cellist and composer Giovanni Sollima, alludes to Luciano Berio’s Sequenzas, “written for performers whose virtuosity is above all a virtuosity of knowledge”.

Sollima, the ACO’s Finnish principal violin Satu Vänskä and Canadian double bass Maxime Bibeau performed some of the most difficult and technically complex pieces written in Italy over the period of 400 years covered in the programme, from Monteverdi to Berio and Sollima himself. These are pieces written for and performed by virtuosi – but there is nothing academic about their playing.

Too often virtuosity can be arid, sacrificing emotion and immediacy to technical perfection. No chance of that here. What strikes you about Sollima is his impish energy. He is a very physical musician. He walks around the stage, playing his cello like a rock musician his electric guitar – and Sollima has played rock music, as well as a melting ice cello in the Italian Alps. When he is seated, he wraps himself around the cello, his head flung back, gazing at the ceiling in an expression of ecstasy. When the orchestra plays a phrase, he whirls round in his seat in surprise and responds with a rapid riposte on the cello. The orchestra fires back a remark, Sollima replies, and a brilliant passage becomes a natural conversation in music.

The ACO opened with a string setting of Claudio Monteverdi’s delicate, mournful Lamento della Ninfa (1638); Tommie Anderson’s theorbo sang with the passion of the human voice. Throughout the concert, the ACO performed to their usual high standard, clearly in rapport with Sollima, with whom they had played during his 2014 tour, while the Sicilian took as much delight in their performance as his own.

Sollima’s first appearance was in Leonardo Leo’s Cello Concerto No 3, L60 (composed 1737/38), a graceful 18th-century piece full of the warm South, which received tremendous applause.

Vänskä and Bibeau explored the physical qualities of their instruments in Berio’s Sequenza VIII for solo violin and Sequenza XIVb for solo double bass (a reinvention by Stefano Scodanibbio at Berio’s request of the original cello piece), two separate Sequenzas which become a duet. It is an adventurous, abstract piece. As a demonstration of what the instruments can do, it is fascinating; the soloists push their instruments to the edge, creating remarkable, although not always pleasant, sounds. Only three minutes long, Bibeau’s other solo, Giacinto Scelsi’s C’est bien la nuit from Nuits (1972), was an intriguing 20th-century work which explored his instrument’s lower range.

At the centre of the concert were two pieces based on the music of Gioachino Rossini, the best loved and most celebrated Italian composer of the early 19th century. Vänskä played Introductions and Variations on Dal tuo stellato soglio, the prayer in Mosè in Egitto (1818). The flamboyant Niccolò Paganini – one of the greatest in an age of legendary virtuosi, including Liszt and Chopin, and whose skill and sinister appearance made his contemporaries believe he had, like Robert Johnson a century later, sold his soul to the devil – composed this fiendishly complex fantasy. Vänskä was more than equal to the challenge; she performed with such aplomb that she was roundly and rightly cheered.

Sollima played Une larme: Thème and Variations from Péchés de vieillesse (1857-68), composed decades after Rossini’s retirement from the operatic stage with Guillaume Tell (1829) but quintessential Rossini with its scampering rhythms and long, sorrowful, bel canto phrases. The musicians’ fascination with the physical properties of instruments makes it surprising that they didn’t include the overture to Il Signor Bruschino, where the second violins tap their bows on their music stands.

Sollima brought the evening to a close with one of his own compositions, Fecit Neap 17… for cello, strings and continuo (2011). The piece, written in the style of an 18th-century Neapolitan composer, brought the concert full circle, a recapitulation of the evening’s themes as the 21st-century looked back at the great Italian past: Baroque cadenzas performed as a jam session. To his gifts as a composer and a dazzling virtuoso, Sollima adds comic talent. He tried to get a tune out of the cello’s endpin and tailpiece, and held the bow between his teeth, like Carmen and her rose, while he plucked the strings with his fingers.

This was an exciting, exhilarating concert, an exploration of sound and a demonstration of virtuosity which both entertained the audience and moved them with beautiful music. Sollima’s predecessors would have approved.

ACO tours this programme until July 10