“Blank slate” might be an apt name for the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s first tour of 2021, following the shutdowns caused by the COVID-19 pandemic last year, but the concert was in fact the orchestra’s first to be cancelled in 2020. Named for Arvo Pärt’s exquisite double violin concerto, the program – which brings together, for the most part, music written under the shadow of the Soviet Union – is beautifully constructed and it would have been a crime to leave this one to languish in the ashes of last year.

Australian Chamber OrchestraThe Australian Chamber Orchestra. Photo © Nic Walker

Artistic Director Richard Tognetti sets the music in motion, the ACO strings opening with Wojciech Kilar’s Orawa. Named for a region in Poland’s southern Tatra highlands, the 1986 work fuses folk music influences from the Góral fiddlers with a dynamic style reminiscent of the American minimalists – Steve Reich’s Different Trains was composed just two years later.

While Kilar and Estonian composer Arvo Pärt share a ‘minimalist’ aesthetic and oeuvres shaped by their Christian spirituality, Pärt’s Tabula Rasa – the first major work in his ‘tintinnabular’ style – looks back to Gregorian chant as much as it looks to the future suggested by the title. Tognetti and Satu Vänskä’s violin lines sing cleanly – shimmering in the high register – against Brenda Jones’ bell-like prepared piano in the earlier moments of the first movement, Ludus, quicker textures skating across the surface of the pealing strings before, in the final moments, their timbres take on an almost serrated intensity. The swaying music of Silentium, in contrast, strikes a meditative tone, the prepared piano gamelan-like and the final bars a long, teased-out descent into the lower strings.

Prokofiev’s Opus 115 Sonata for Solo Violin is given a lighter treatment, Tognetti and co conjuring Soviet violin classes in which students would play the same work together in unison. With 10 top flight violinists on stage, however, the ‘party trick’ is performed with a commitment that extends well beyond novelty. While the dense texture of so many players means delicate moments are unusually muscular, the rich, luminous sound, the vibrancy of the low register and remarkably fleet-footed performance of the Con brio – all dispatched with heroic synchronicity – make for great listening.

The Australian premiere of the Misterioso from Kaija Saariaho’s Nymphéa, in an arrangement for strings, which was on the program in 2020, is replaced here by a new commission from Thomas Adès, which premiered at the beginning of the tour in Wollongong. Shanty, commissioned by a consortium of orchestras and festivals around the world, is a short but intriguing work of rocking melodies, glistening pizzicati and slinky bends. While the work might be an anachronism on a program of otherwise Soviet music, its folk elements and economical, repeating gestures – in which Adès evokes mechanical routine and a longing for mutiny – resonate sympathetically with the music of Kilar and Pärt, particularly.

The night finishes with Shostakovich’s Opus 110a Chamber Symphony, an arrangement of his Eighth String Quartet by Rudolf Barshai. Shostakovich composed the quartet when he was supposed to be working on a film score: “Instead I wrote a quartet that’s of no use to anybody and full of ideological flaws,” he wrote to his friend Isaak Glikman with typical self-effacement and a possible nod to any state officials who might be reading his correspondence.

The deeply personal work, built around the composer’s musical signature, DSCH, is replete with references to his other works, from his First Symphony to the Cello Concerto he wrote for Rostropovich just a year before. “I’ve been thinking that when I die, it’s hardly likely that anybody will ever write a work dedicated to my memory,” he told Glikman. “So I have decided to write one myself.”

From Tognetti’s lonely violin solo over droning strings to a taut account of the Allegro molto, this is a searing performance of moving pathos and jittering anxiety. The musicians relish Shostakovich’s folk-like melodies, while the delicacy they bring to quieter moments lend all the more power to the music’s violent attacks, such as the stabbing chords that herald the beginning of the fourth movement, while the velvet sound of muted strings as the work comes to a dark close is hair-raising.

The Australian Chamber Orchestra’s Tabula Rasa is at City Recital Hall until 14 February


There will also be a Tabula Rasa concert film presented as part of ACO StudioCasts (the Orchestra’s inaugural digital subscription series) on 18 August 

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