In its first Boston appearance since 2007, the Australian Chamber Orchestra enchanted. Featured this weekend in a Celebrity Series of Boston evening at Jordan Hall, the ensemble, founded in 1975 by cellist John Painter, provided challenging interpretations of well-known works by Bach, Beethoven and Mozart. Consistently, lead violin, artistic director and composer-arranger Richard Tognetti shone rewarding bright lights on performance facets that extend from early to contemporary works. Incorporating both originalism and enhancements, ACO’s varied and hybrid style enlarged this melophile’s experience.
The long-enduring brilliance of Bach lends itself to transfiguration, perhaps intrinsic the programming characteristic of the ACO, which aims to expand or embolden in its sharing of more intimate work. The first four pieces of the Art of Fugue offered in this concert constitute a stand-alone work. The entire opus (its posthumous publication story, various and intriguing) bequeathed not only an enduring master class on the fugue to the world but mystery as to its intended instrumentalists. Thus, no surprise that its contents have been played by myriad instrumental combinations and recorded by noted pianists, harpsichordists, organists, string quartets, as well as by a string quartet-plus-woodwind quintet, and by chamber orchestras. Indeed, the ACO’s recording of Contrapunctus I-IV (at the Sydney Opera House in 2016) delights, providing an even bigger sound than achieved here in Boston. The ACO version sounds far larger than string-quartet versions, as performed and recorded, for example, by the Juilliard, and appears as an entirely different work when compared to the inwardly-focused recording on modern piano by Glenn Gould.
Contrapunctus I, starting in a starkly declarative voice, introduces themes that recur throughout four interrelated fugues. From the first note through the last, ACO sounded straightforward and clear. In the next, Contrapunctus II, with its nearly gigue-like embellishments, the group amplified the first fugue, providing a little merriment. In contrast, Contrapunctus III inverts the themes of the first, creating yearning, well-conveyed by the musicians. The final piece of the group, Contrapunctus IV, all pizzicato, complex and joyful, yet a bit quieter, sounded a bit mysterious and enchanting as delivered. Taken together, the robust effect differed greatly from a keyboardist’s imagination. The sonorities sometimes seemed less crisp than I’d have wished, yet in all, more than worthy of rehearing.
Programming of the Bach was particularly apt, given the after-intermission inclusion of Beethoven’s Quartet Number 13, in B-flat Major, Opus 130, with the re-engrafted Grosse Fuge, which is oft considered a homage to Bach. While many, including this reviewer, far prefer the intimations possible in a string quartet, the transcription by Tognetti expands and, to some extent, transcends, our understanding of Beethoven. Played without pause, the ACO intends to recreate Beethoven’s original thinking—which included the Grosse Fuge as its original ending. As a full offering, this rendition overwhelmed, at least for someone primed for quartet hearing. The chance to listen to the entire six-movement Opus 130, followed by the originally-intended Grosse Fuge, felt like winning a late-quartet lottery, even though the enlarged Beethoven reached forte and fortissimo for far too much of the work—way moreso than in the ACO’s recording, in which the enhanced work feels far more approachable.
Paul Lewis interprets Mozart with sensitivity, panache and excitement, all qualities that deservedly have created a wide following. If you have not heard him before, I imagine last night converted newcomers to fans. The Mozart piano concerto No. 12 in A Major, K.414, a largely sunny work rose to a high point of the evening. With his ease of phrasing, Lewis bestowed a magical feeling to the 6 distinct themes of the Allegro. The Andante, with its lyricism and initial loving quotation of J.C. Bach, enchanted. The Rondeau: Allegretto, happily reflected high spirits, yet gentility, with clever and complex counterpoint. The chamber orchestra balanced the soloist impeccably.
With its 18 string players, plus oboe and horn as needed in this concert, the Australian Chamber Orchestra proved itself original, intrepid and enjoyable. One hopes the ensemble will not wait another 12 years for its next US tour.