A Cunning Blog

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Unfinished business

Articulation. Timbre. Pace. Pitch. Ornamentation. Tempo. Vibrato. Effect. Affect. There’s so much to think about once you enter the labyrinth of Historically Informed Performance. It sometimes feels like a loss of innocence – gone are the days of just playing, revelling in the line, enjoying the visceral pull of the harmonies, feeling the rhythm dip and dodge between your own internal pulse. Suddenly, every note can betray your ignorance. Suddenly, you know just how much you don’t know. To reach this realisation, then step out on stage and perform with the kind of authority which convinces an audience is the challenge every self-respecting HIPster must overcome.

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Jakob Lehmann conducts the Australian Romantic and Classical Orchestra (Photo: Nick Gilbert)

The first chord of the second half, bar 1 of the Overture in C Minor, written by a young Franz Schubert, was, for me, the moment when the Australian Romantic and Classical Orchestra wholeheartedly took on the challenge. The ensemble took a breath, then began, unleashing a C minor chord like a wall of sound. But then, rather than releasing the chord and letting the aftershocks bounce around the hall before moving swiftly on, they micromanaged the decrescendo, controlling its decay in a steady line from loud to soft. Deliberate, defiant, and highly dramatic.

It might seem as if my obsession with this one note is me falling into the same state of analysis paralysis that can catch out the diligent scholar musician. I don’t think, however, it’s quite the same. What caught my ear was not the execution in itself, but the effect. I’ve described what I was hearing, but what I actually felt coming off the stage was a bold and unanimous gesture; an ensemble saying, “Listen to this. This is what we made.” It was wonderful. The orchestra went on to make a powerful case for this early work and the following work, Schubert’s Symphony No. 8, the Unfinished.


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Fiona Campbell (Photo: Nick Gilbert)

In the first half, the orchestra played a different role, that of accompanist and foil to the dazzling charms of mezzo soprano Fiona Campbell, singing three Rossini arias. To say she upstaged them is not quite fair. There was plenty to enjoy in the accompaniment too, including the whiny snarl of hand-stopped notes in the natural horns, and the distinctive porp of period bassoons. And there was plenty of dazzle in the ranks notwithstanding some problems with intonation and wrong entries. In the end, however, it was Campbell who, own the stage with an unquenchable joy and a generous helping of sequins, plus some nicely done stage business — full marks for multitasking, Maestro Lehmann and Madama Campbell — and deliciously hammy acting. And then there was the voice, solid, and spanning a generous, warm contralto up to an agile top which crackled and sparked with character. From the mock-tragedy of Cruda Sorte to the open glee of Non piu mesta she charmed and captivated.

The Australian Romantic and Classical Orchestra, under the valiant leadership of Richard Gill AO, Rachael Beesley, Nicole van Bruggen and Benjamin Bayl, continue to find their voice. Sadly, Richard Gill was unable to conduct the Sydney performance — I hope he feels better soon — but his last minute replacement, guest concertmaster Jakob Lehmann, did a fabulous job navigating the orchestra through the tricky orchestral recitatives and inspiring a bold and brilliant engagement with Schubert’s Unfinished.

The Australian Romantic and Classical Orchestra head to Melbourne for a repeat of this concert on Monday 22 May at 7.30pm in Melbourne Recital Hall. 

HELP! I write reviews firstly because I love the music and secondly to support the artists who work so hard. They don’t get paid nearly enough and I don’t get paid at all most of the time (except in love). So if you enjoyed this review, please feel free to have a rummage around the rest of the website and please consider supporting my latest project, a book on Dartington Summer School of Music, to be published by Unbound in 2018. 




mirabile dictu

mouseplayLast week I interviewed Lorenza Borrani, leader of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe and co-founder of Spira Mirabilis. Yesterday I heard her play. It was a bit good*.

Borrani is in Australia as guest leader of the Australian Chamber Orchestra, filling in for artistic director Richard Tognetti, who is resident at the Barbican Centre in London this month. With them she does a national tour of “Beethoven’s Favourite”, a program including his String Quartet in C-Sharp minor, Op. 131 in a string ensemble arrangement.

The program opened with Borrani as soloist in Schnittke’s Sonata for Violin and Chamber Orchestra (1968). Schnittke, who at the time of writing was a member of the Union of Composers in the former Soviet Union, wrote this work in the state-required serial idiom. Theoretically. Apparently the tone rows are there if you want to do a structural analysis, but they are completely upstaged by the kaleidoscope of lush chords, soulful lines, spiky rhythms, fascinating timbres and, above all, a sense of serious play. A great match, then, for this questing soloist and her willing band. Notwithstanding the fact that her shoulder rest fell off just before the final cadenza, Borrani borranigave it a gripping performance** — the kind of performance where you forget she’s playing the violin or, for that matter, that you are listening to the ACO, and just get lost in listening.

The Beethoven is the culmination of the ACO’s year long exploration of his late quartets. A long and strange journey which has brought them to a very special place. From the opening phrase — on one violin, then many, then on viola, cello, and bass… — they projected an intense and coherent vision. I’m not just talking about well-matched articulation and phrasing, or tight ensemble. And I’m also not talking about playing as one: the sound was rich and full of complexity, a collection of individuals. What impressed me was the singularity of the vision: a feeling that they shared a deep understanding of this expansive piece of thinking. That, and the sustained nature of this vision: in a 40 minute work you expect an orchestra to let the reins loose every so often, and it’s not as if the work doesn’t invite this at times — it’s by no means all angst and counterpoint. But even in the lyrical second movement, or the playful finale, they maintained an almost palpable tension. Like holding your breath for 40 minutes. Very special. I hope they recorded it.

Between Schnittke and Beethoven they played a set of Schubert Minuets and Trios. Just a few little dances. Vienna in eight bar phrases. Extra Ordinary Schubert. Extraordinary Schubert. Seriously, though, what could have been an unassuming little filler was one of the night’s big revelations. In this collection of five minuets and six trios Schubert somehow manages to explore an amazing range of timbres and emotions, and all within the tight confines of a dance structure. The D minor trio, for example, where the first violins sounded like liquid gold; or the Minuet in C, bursting with character one moment, then disappearing into a passage so quiet that you wondered if you were imagining it. The band played like a dream, like the music was being invented spontaneously, fresh and new. I liked it.***

There’s one more performance in Sydney plus four more in Wollongong, Canberra and Melbourne over the next four days. Richard Tognetti’s back for the ACO’s final tour for the year but in the meantime, the mice are playing magnificently.

*understatement #1

**understatement #2

***understatement #3

There’s more to read and explore at my author’s page at Unbound, where I’m crowdfunding a book on Dartington International Summer School. Do go and see! Do pledge! There are lots of rewards for supporters, not least the book, but also concert tickets, music criticism workshops and goodies from the archive.