The Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra opened its 2020 season with a cracking performance of the Overture to Mozart’s 1786 singspiel Der Schauspieldirektor or The Impresario, for which the period instrument ensemble named its concert. Taut and energetic from the top with surging strings and polished wind lines, violinist and Co-Artistic Director (with clarinettist Nicole van Bruggen) Rachael Beesley led a foot-to-the-floor performance, spurring the musicians forward in the Overture’s minor passages.

Australian Romantic & Classical OrchestraThe Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra’ The Impresario. Photo © Oscar Smith

The main course on the first half of the program, however, was Anton Eberl’s Opus 33 Symphony in E-Flat Major, remarkably in its Australian premiere performances – particularly noteworthy given that a year after its first performance in Vienna in 1804, this piece was programmed alongside the world premiere of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, and received a warmer reception to boot.

While Eberl feels a little flighty with his musical ideas when compared with the almost obsessive economy of his friend and rival Beethoven, there is much to enjoy in this music – particularly in the exciting performance the symphony was given here. The hymn-like introduction, punctuated by martial winds and drums, gives way to an Allegro of driving syncopations, jolting stops, and virtuosic string lines – plenty to keep audience and musicians on their toes. These were all handled masterfully by Beesley and her musicians, with a muscular flex to the running string passages, smooth clarinet melodies from Van Bruggen and pristine flute lines from Perth’s Georgia Browne (now based in Europe, where she is first flute with France’s Ensemble Pygmalion). Dr Megan Lang, in her excellent program note, drew a parallel between the dark march of Eberl’s second movement and the Marcia funebre of the Eroica, but in this performance we also heard an affinity with the famous Allegretto of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony in the concert’s second half – at least until Eberl shifts into a surprisingly jolly second section, with cheerily bubbling winds. Beesley led a boisterous Menuetto before a fast-flowing, characterful finale that the musicians attacked with raw energy – with some wonderfully quirky solo lines from Kirsty McCahon’s bass along the way.

Balancing the Mozart and Eberl was the drama and grandeur of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony – far more successful on its premiere in 1813 than the Eroica had been eight years earlier. Here the ARCO musicians gave another highly charged performance, Belgian oboist Vinciane Baudhuin’s poignant lines a particular highlight. While there were a few blemishes in the Beethoven – and a moment in the first movement where it threatened to unravel slightly – this was a performance characterised by a rich, vibrant orchestral sound. The lower strings at the beginning of the Allegretto were robust and arresting, and while there were moments when the movement felt a little too held back after the impetus of that opening, the gentle interweaving of the fugato made for a beautiful colour. There was plenty of whip-crack energy and humour in the Presto, however, before a finale of punchy accents and barrelling momentum brought the concert to a thrilling close. With this interesting program, excitingly performed, Beesley, Van Bruggen and their musicians have launched their 2020 season by once again demonstrating that the Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra is a force to be reckoned with.