Steven Isserlis and the Australian Chamber OrchestraSteven Isserlis. Photo - Tom Miller

It's a pointer to what a sheltered life I've led. Last night was my first time. At the City Recital Hall, which, acoustically, at least, matches the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall (and then some) and is, I think, more comfortable; it's certainly a more conducively intimate size.

The Australian Chamber Orchestra, during the course of my adult years, seems to have come from nowhere and gone to the stratosphere. For its foundation, we've John Painter to thank. For its continuation and flowering we've many to thank, but, of course, not least among them, longtime Artistic Director, Richard Tognetti.

Tognetti, it seems to me, has quietly, surreptitiously railed against the strictures, often self-imposed, on classical music and musicians. I shouldn't imagine there'd be too many orchestras worldwide in which (male) members have earrings and mohawks. That's bound to signify a more modern, slightly upstart, challenging approach.

The audacious attitude pays off. There is much fine music available to one's ears, but not nearly so much of it delves so deeply into the motivations and spirit of the music. Not nearly so much of it stirs, excites and arouses like ACO renditions. Commitment is physically evident in lead violinist, Tognetti; his second, Helena Rathbone; principal violist, Christopher Moore; principal cellist, Timo-Veikko Valve and, on this occasion, special guest, one of the world's best, cellist Stephen Isserlis. Loving your work would seem such a rare commodity, it's always a pleasure (nay, thrill) to watch and, of course, in this context, we get to hear it, as well.

Last night's programme began with a concerto for cello & an exceptionally well-chosen one, for it allowed plenty of room for Isserlis to show what he's made of: not stern stuff, but a relaxation, comfort and empathy which enables him to take his almost inestimable technical proficiency into another realm; the realm of feeling, so often lost in more serious-minded attempts to reproduce old music. Isserlis, through his humanity and humour, gets inside the music and, I get the sense, the composer's head. This is a musical prize which even surpasses his instrumental gift. Thus, Bach's (but one of the 'lesser' Bachs, in Carl Philipp Emanuel, who died, albeit in Berlin, around the time of first settlement, in Sydney) allegro, largo and final movement of his piece, in A major, were given the kind of airing one expects might have won an ovation from the maestro himself. The piece itself has the unmistakable hallmarks of the many and various Bachs: that pleasing, jaunty, Teutonic symmetry which, had he listened to more of it instead of, say Wagner, might've soothed the savage beast that reared-up in a certain Adolf. It's all about a happy ending; (a characteristic of the form my partner contends to be universally boring, she being more captured by the likes of Bartok, whose demanding work I find, well, demanding work). Essentially, the ACO and, particularly, Isserlis, made a delightful that much more delightful, with an unamplified sound, on sensational instruments, so pure, in its impurity (for we heard every click and moan of bows on strings), so warm and enlivened, it quickened the pulse.

Woldemar Bargiel (did he get teased at school, or was every second kid named Woldermar, in 1830s Berlin?) and his Octet in C minor, were the centrepiece for the evening. Apparently, Bargiel had a bit of a competitive streak and was seeking to rival Mendelssohn, who fashioned the template for octets, at just 16! WB was an elderly 19 when he drafted his and, while it's generally agreed his predecessor takes gold, this is a worthy silver. Also in three movements, but effecting, arguably, a deeper emotional trajectory than the Bach opener, it doesn't perhaps have the maturity or originality which would set it on a winner's podium. Notwithstanding such caveats, it has heart, despite taking itself a little too seriously and introspectively.

A glass of champagne, at interval, was just the thing to settle in for Ravel's brief, but intensely moving and uplifting Hebraic melodies; the first, Kaddish, based on a Jewish prayer & the second, from Yiddish, The Eternal Enigma. The genius of these was in Tognetti's string arrangements, adapted from vocal ones. Both, in their eloquent brevity, proved a simple, but heart bowl of soup can be as satisfying, if not moreso, than an overwrought, elaborate main course.

Bartok, of course, almost requires some kind of warmup & sharpening of the intellect. His rather modern Divertimento for Strings was conceived and written in 1939. My impression is Bartok diverted his attention from impending horrors by losing himself in his music. This seems to be borne out in Bartok's own comments and numerous commentaries. Certainly there is pervasive darkness and foreboding, underscored by BB's trademark rhythmic insistence, carried & communicated powerfully by Australia's national orchestra.

A lusty, vivacious, delicious evening of impassioned playing, from one of the planet's better ensembles.

Steven Isserlis and the Australian Chamber Orchestra

CPE Bach Cello Concerto W172 in A major
Bargiel Octet in C minor Op.15a
Ravel Two Hebrew Melodies
Bartók Divertimento for Strings

Llewellyn Hall, Canberra Sat 2 August 8pm | Bookings 1800 444 444
The Arts Centre, Hamer Hall, Melbourne Sun 3 August 2.30pm | Bookings 1300 136 166
The Arts Centre, Hamer Hall, Melbourne Mon 4 August 8pm | Bookings 1300 136 166
Adelaide Town Hall Tue 5 August 8pm | Bookings 1800 444 444
City Recital Hall Angel Place, Sydney Sat 9 August 8pm | Bookings 02 8256 2222
Sydney Opera House Concert Hall Sun 10 August 2.30pm | Bookings 02 9250 7777
QPAC Concert Hall, Brisbane Mon 11 August 8pm | Bookings 136 246
City Recital Hall Angel Place, Sydney Tue 12 August 8pm | Bookings 02 8256 2222
City Recital Hall Angel Place, Sydney Wed 13 August 7pm | Bookings 02 8256 2222

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