Informative, yes; dry, no
Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra
Melbourne Recital Centre
Thursday August 22
An inspiration of the late Richard Gill, this orchestra – or, on this night, chameleonic chamber ensemble – is dedicated to historically informed performances which, the older I get, takes in a lot more music than it used to do. We’ve had a welter of such groups come visiting over the past 50 years or so and have established our own organizations in this field, some to considerable acclaim. But, as an ARCO virgin, I was taken aback and delighted by the orchestra’s most recent appearance here.
Even though the program offered little new – Mendelssohn’s Octet for Strings and Brahms’ D Major Serenade in its original nonet format – the standard of interpretation on offer managed to achieve what very few musical experiences do these days: making you re-hear and re-configure music that you thought you had securely under your belt. Most of us would have heard a good many versions of the Mendelssohn gem; sometimes from two discrete string quartets banded together for the occasion, more often from performers extracted from an established orchestral body, and also there’s been the possibility of hearing 8 individuals collaborating with one end in view, as in student airings.
Is it fair to say that most of these prove worthy, sometimes exhilarating, often owing what success they have to the unkillable quality of the young composer’s score? After hearing the ARCO forces, you have to take a step back; their interpretation doesn’t grab you for its drama, not even in the fugue-rich finale that most groups hammer into place with ferocity; nor is it affectingly rich in emotional swooping, as is too often the case in the work’s generous Andante. Immediately, the listener knows that the reading is different.
You expect the first violin to seize the reins right from the start with those upward arpeggio surges while every one else supplies filler for 8 bars. Guest director Jakob Lehmann cut back on the ardour so that his output emerged from the E flat Major buzzing without unnecessary heroics or attention-grabbing. In this, he set much of a pattern for the remainder of the players who supplied a kind of organic growth rather than a series of spotlit moments, as when Violin 4 and Viola 1 combine at bar 68 for the B flat theme in 6ths, or later when Violin 2 sets off the rush to recapitulation at bar 209, Rachael Beesley setting the semiquavers in motion from within the moment rather than seizing the opportunity to distract.
For the first five minutes, the ARCO output impresses for its caressing nature, a gentility that comes from every point of the stage. You endure no scraping as the ensemble output is fine, carefully finished, but I was thankful for the Exposition repeat, just for the sake of temperature acclimatisation. Quiet individual touches persisted into the Andante where Lehmann employed a fair amount of portamento, although he was pretty much alone in this practice. As well, the group proved themselves comfortable at negotiating changes in tempo, bending the bar-line appreciably but without interrupting the movement’s fluency.
Mendelssohn’s breathtaking Scherzo was handled with courtesy and a lack of the sublimated freneticism that informs many other readings; light-footed, as the composer’s direction suggests, but not hopping about on hot coals. The concluding Presto brought out the group’s most forthright playing with plenty of hefty bow-work, but even here the details told, like some scintillating duet fragments from Beesley and Tsunoda peeking out from the muted ferment, as at bars 355 to 372. In the end, even this heavy-handed set of pages came over as brisk and bright – remarkable given the frequent determined working-out of material where the young composer can’t disguise his learning.
You won’t come across the original form of Brahms’ Serenade No. 1 very often, mainly because he destroyed the score and what we hear is a clever reconstruction based on estimates and memories. You can see why Joachim advised Brahms to revise it for full orchestra, especially in the bookend movements. But for this group of players, the nonet – violin, viola, cello, bass, flute, two clarinets, bassoon and horn – provided scope for individuality without effort, even if you could have wished for less assertiveness from Robert Percival’s bassoon in some of the more lightly-scored moments.
Lehmann maintained his approach of using very little vibrato; cellist Daniel Yeadon cello employed it more often. Not that this latter player had much opportunity to exercise this technique early on, thanks to the folksy drones he had to produce with bass Robert Nairn. Violist Simon Oswell didn’t hold back when a potentially fruity solo came his way. But the significant player for this section was Darryl Poulsen on horn which, for a natural instrument, sounded unexpectedly fresh and clear of errors. Thanks to this unfussed clarity, the work opened with a pleasant mixture of rusticity and sophistication, as it should.
The first scherzo exposed the excellent clarinet duet work of Nicole van Bruggen and Emily Worthington – subtle in phrasing and restrained in dynamic. But the whole group made excellent work of these pages’ seamless, long paragraphs. Even better performance skill came in the solitary Adagio which gave us an opportunity to luxuriate in rich scoring and some fine textural mixes, notably from Lehmann and Oswell whose production qualities – so different in solo work – complemented each other with felicitous results. This movement is heard at its melting best in the return to taws in the last third, a gift for Lehmann who gave it the same flexibility without overkill that exemplified his playing across the evening. Here again, Poulsen made a brave showing, enunciating his notes without apparent effort and even reconciling you to the odd nature of step-by-step melodies for which the mechanics of his instrument preclude evenness of output.
With the clarinet duet of Menuetto I, this serenade is best suited to the small chamber disposition. The second part saw Lehmann unexpectedly impose brusque dynamic contrasts. Admittedly, the second Menuetto is all violin but, in this version, I was happy to get back to the calm imperturbability of those clarinets in the repeated first Menuetto. The second Scherzo gained by its change to full orchestra status, not least by having three more horns to help carry the brunt of the action. Still, these pages met with an enthusiastic response from the ARCO musicians. If I wasn’t as pleased by the ensemble’s account of the finale, it might have been due to the rhythmic ambiguity that hangs over the movement where the time signature is 2/4 but most ensembles slip into 6.8 by not maintaining a sufficiently keen ear on the disposition of individual lines. However, these performers worked hard to the last bar of this rondo – the least successful of the score’s six segments.
Obviously, listening to the Brahms score made for a further test of concentration. You had to take on board pretty quickly the combination of clarity and restraint that seems to come with the ARCO territory. On top of that, you found yourself trying to discount your knowledge of how this work sounds under ‘normal’ conditions. As a result, the performance kept you on your toes, aurally speaking. For many of us, such demands are unusual; for several of us, they make for the best kind of musical experience. It’s hard to resist this group’s dedication to a particular style of playing which attracts for its integrity; the pity is that, as on this night, these gifted musicians are working to an audience of small numbers. Not that this should give them pause: their efforts and results are effective and powerful.