The strange chemistry of Tognetti and the Australian Chamber Orchestra

Dublin was treated to the world premiere of the orchestra’s new commission, by Jonny Greenwood

The world would be a better place if we knew the chemical formula for the relationship between the Australian Chamber Orchestra and its lead violinist and artistic director, Richard Tognetti. Both parties had their previous lives: they for 15 years, he for 25. But since its outset, in 1990, their alliance has evolved into one of the classical music world's enduring success stories.

Although the Australian Chamber Orchestra have been paying regular visits to Europe for many years, last Thursday's concert at the National Concert Hall was their first in Ireland. And it being the second stop on their eight-city European tour, Dublin was treated to the world premiere of the orchestra's latest commission, a work by the multifaceted British rock musician and Radiohead lead guitarist Jonny Greenwood.

It's not unknown for Tognetti to exchange his accustomed 1743 Guarneri for an electric violin, but Greenwood's use of electronics in this piece is restricted to discreetly substituting ancillary instruments that might equally well have participated corporeally. The bland title, Water, suggests an infinity of images, but the focus, maintained by the spicy drone of real and synthesised Indian tanpuras, is ceremonial, providing a backdrop against which an upright piano and the 18 strings of the Australian Chamber Orchestra each do their own things with gently shifting melodic templates. The recipe may recall Ravi Shankar and the colourful era when westerners from Messiaen to the Beatles flirted with Indian classical music. Yet the product has a lean level-headedness that could only belong to the present moment.

But it was in standard classical and romantic repertoire that the orchestra most strongly proclaimed Tognetti's individuality. By established team rule, the violinists and violists played standing, while raised seating secured comparable projection for the winds. The resulting tonal integration, combined with astonishingly unified execution, made the opening lusty account of Haydn's Hen Symphony No 83 seem as if it were issuing from a single instrument.

In Mozart's last piano concerto, No 29 in B flat, Tognetti's intentions and those of soloist Steven Osborne were indivisible. Seated with his face and the pointed end of his lidless instrument towards the audience, Osborne performed as a first among equals, bringing out through an exquisitely understated virtuosity the poignant emptiness of the threadbare themes and quietly illustrating the uneasy truth that major keys and commonplace harmonies can have their dark side.

The attention to detail, the determination to treat nothing as subsidiary: these things kept the concerto's orchestral and solo elements constantly on a par, and went on to make for a remarkably fresh vision of Tchaikovsky's masterpiece for strings, the Souvenir de Florence.

Tognetti’s interpretation seemed based on a set of principles not all of which would combine comfortably in the ears of some listeners. To be sure, the composer’s directions were absolutely respected, but these were only the starting point for a method that distinguished between melody on one hand, where warmth of expression was allowed free rein, and harmony on the other, where all emotions were subjugated to the abstract beauty of pure intonation. Rhythmic intricacies, especially ostinatos and ricochet figures, had a field day; in the finale, speed was of the essence.

Given that many of these playing manners have their source in the revival of baroque music and the rediscovery of historic performance practice, there was something ironic in their application to the music of a romantic like Tchaikovsky, who would probably never have dared to imagine his music played in such a way. But this, unashamedly and inimitably, was Tchaikovsky for the here and now.

To memorise or not to memorise?

It isn’t a written rule that the solo parts of concertos must be performed from memory. In modern and contemporary works that shun the assimilable lingua franca of classical music, only the meanest critic would begrudge the soloist a copy of what musicians call “the dots”. And on a sound recording, there can be no telling whether the soloist has memorised the part or not. Still, it’s a widespread if not universal expectation that in live performances of mainstream concertos, the soloist will be unencumbered by the printed page.

Sadly, that wasn't the case with violinist Philippe Graffin's essay at the Dvorák concerto at the NCH on Friday. Graffin clung to his music stand as if to a lifeline, spouting his passages in frenetic bursts that carried with them barely a trace of the charm, wit and humanity that mark good performances of this lovable work. Only with an assured reading (and it was still a reading) of Vytautas Barkauskas's angular Partita for unaccompanied solo violin (1967) did Graffin establish any meaningful contact with his audience. But that didn't dispel the awkward sense of an encore tail wagging the concerto dog.

Steering the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra through the choppy waters of the concerto, and keeping a firm hand on the tiller, was guest conductor Michael Francis, who more than rescued the evening with a considered and engrossing traversal of Shostakovich's epic Symphony No 11.

The music's grim climaxes and elegiac plateaus were equally well-served by disciplined playing that made room for nuances even at the very loudest points, and that was memorable particularly for the string basses' unanimous pizzicatos, the plaintive cantabile of the violas, and the haunting solo work of cor anglais player Deborah Clifford.

Milestone for a baritone

It's no secret that English baritone Sir Thomas Allen turned 70 last month. The connoisseurs who thronged his recital at the NCH on Sunday afternoon may have done so as much with the objective of simply being in the presence of the great singer as of hearing his latest take on the bitter sweets of Schubert's Winterreise.

Versatility has been the keynote to a career in which Allen’s stage roles have spanned just about everything from Mozart, Wagner and Britten to operetta and Broadway. The Lied may have been a sideline, but it’s one in which his recordings represent a textbook optimum.

Three years beyond the point at which the late Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau retired from singing, no one would expect Allen to deliver Winterreise with the frosty precision of his own recording of 1991. Yet, although some slackening of the vocal cords might sometimes have been evident at moderate power, at extremes the voice, aided by the tastefully graded piano accompaniment of Joseph Middleton, still asserted its glory or cast its hushed spell. This winter's journey may have been tinged with the hues of autumn, but it remained an object lesson in concentrated, unflinching characterisation.

Michael Dervan is on leave