Canberra in early autumn is an artist’s paradise. The dazzling foliage of the city’s latticed quilt of trees, the cool breezes and crystalline surface of Lake Burley Griffin. The perfect place for a festival. And what would be the equivalent in music of such a refreshing and peaceable atmosphere on a pleasant Sunday morning?

It would be hard to imagine a more enjoyable program than the two pieces performed by members of the Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra, chamber works by Beethoven and Franz Berwald.

Australian Romantic and Classical OrchestraNicole van Bruggen, Neal Peres Da Costa and Daniel Yeadon. Photo © Peter Hislop

True to their name and growing reputation, the Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra players perform on period instruments. The strings play with gut strings and period bows. The keyboard player Neal Peres Da Costa played a fortepiano which was a replica of a Viennese instrument from around 1790. The instrument was borrowed from the ANU’s renowned collection of early keyboard instruments. The pitch was lowered to A-430, noticeably different from the A-440 our contemporary ears are accustomed to.

Of the two works on the program, Beethoven’s Trio in E Flat for clarinet, cello and piano, Op.38 is the more familiar. Dating from around 1803, we know it better as his early Septet, Op.20. With a view to the domestic market, Beethoven reduced the septet to a trio and retained the six-movement quasi-Serenade structure for which Mozart was renowned.

The trio of Nicole van Bruggen (clarinet), Daniel Yeadon (cello) and fortepianist (Neal Peres Da Costa) played with a unanimity of spirit, but lacked a little in animation. Theirs was an assured and leisurely performance, somewhat pedestrian at times, particularly towards the close of the 40-minute piece where they appeared to tire.

Australian Romantic and Classical OrchestraMusicians of the Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra. Photo © Peter Hislop

More interesting was the opening work on the program, the Grand Septet in B Flat (1828, but not published until 1883) by Franz Berwald, the first great Scandinavian symphonist. This Swedish composer (1796-1868)  was also a physiotherapist, sawmill manager and glassblower and, according to the Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra’s co-founder and clarinettist Nicole van Bruggen, renowned for “his wacky and quirky ideas”. Some record buffs will know one or other of his four symphonies, which occasionally see an airing in concert halls today.

This was “music that smiles”, to use that old adage, and it certainly induced smiles from the players and audience. Its three movements stretched over some 25 minutes and revealed Berwald not so much as a contemporary of Beethoven, but more as a precursor to Mendelssohn. Berwald conveys the same sense of cheerful abandon, with memorable melodies and bustling rhythms, colourful orchestration and the occasional well-placed surprise twist in tonality.

The players responded in kind, relishing the ‘feel-good’ quality of the music and their own ensemble. There could be one quibble, however; the horn player may have found the prestissimo tempi and rapid repeated notes stretched his period instrument beyond its comfort zone.

Berwald’s Grand Septet is one of those lovely surprises that one occasionally finds in festival programs. It engages the listener in a pleasant yet attentive way. Perhaps the Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra could make more of this spirit: why, on a glorious Canberra summer morning, did they dress in sepulchral concert black? More colour in your costumes next time, please.

The Canberra International Music Festival runs until 9 May


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