While the image of Brahms as a turbulent and highly sensitive ‘Great Romantic’ is easily understood, Arnold Schoenberg is perhaps not the first composer to come to mind when we think of Romanticism in music. But Schoenberg’s string sextet Transfigured Night, written during his tonal, High Romantic period of composition, represents the height of this era’s fascination with intensified human emotions and feelings. Members of the Australian Chamber Orchestra, directed by Richard Tognetti, played this work on Sunday afternoon, as well as Brahms’ String Sextet No. 2 in G major and Australian composer Ian Munro’s Black is the Night, which opened the concert.
Black is the Night is a response to a poem of the same title by Judith Wright from her mini-series Letter to a Friend. Like Schoenberg, whose sextet was also inspired by poetry, Munro obviously felt that the poem could be best expressed through wordless music. But Munro’s night is a very different one to Schoenberg’s: beginning with muted chords and featuring plaintive calls from Tognetti’s violin over the top of the other strings, this music had a sense of contentment that we do not hear in the passionate Romantic climaxes and swells of Schoenberg and Brahms.
The ACO is one of Australia’s finest classical ensembles and has been recognised internationally for its musically adventurous and technically brilliant performances. So it needs to be asked why this group is playing on the acoustically unsuitable stage of Hamer Hall while other chamber ensembles in Melbourne have the opportunity to enjoy the new Recital Centre which was built specifically for groups like the ACO. I’m sure there is an explanation for this and the ACO will most likely move to the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall in the near future, but it should be mentioned because it has a great impact on the way an audience hears the music, particularly in this concert which only featured six of the orchestra’s musicians. After having been to several chamber music concerts in the new recital hall in Melbourne it was disappointing to feel distant from, and unengaged with the music being played on Sunday, simply because the acoustics of the concert hall meant that it was not loud enough and there was a lack of clarity and definition in the sound.
The orchestra’s performance of the Brahms sextet consequently came across as a little lack lustre, possibly because the ensemble were struggling to fill the space. At the end of each movement and in the lively Poco Allegro at the end of the work, the group really came together with a lovely resonant sound that finally reached out and drew me in. Principal cellist Timo-Veikko Valve stood out with some lyrical and passionate solo moments, but overall this work reveals more of a tender passion than the stormy tempestuousness that I normally associate with Brahms.
The original string sextet version of Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night filled the second half of the program. Again, it was difficult to not be frustrated by the limitations of Hamer Hall but this was a wonderful performance of an exquisite piece of music nonetheless: the ACO is in its element with excesses of emotion such as this. Strangely enough, the quiet moments seemed to work best, such as a violin solo where Tognetti turned towards the audience and seemed to hold us in the palm of his hand. The passionate surges that characterise this work washed over me a little, not quite loud or strong enough to achieve their full effect. The Great Romantics should envelop you and carry you with them on an extreme emotional journey, and in Hamer Hall this wasn’t quite possible. I look forward to hearing the ACO playing in a space that does justice to its invigorating musicianship and exciting programming.
Australian Chamber Orchestra
Newcastle City Hall Thursday 11 June, 7.30pm | Bookings 4929 1977
Llewellyn Hall, Canberra Saturday 13 June, 8pm | Bookings 1300 795 012
The Arts Centre, Melbourne Sunday 14 June, 2.30pm | Bookings 1300 136 166
The Arts Centre, Melbourne Monday 15 June, 8pm | Bookings 1300 136 166
Adelaide Town Hall Tuesday 16 June, 8pm | Bookings 131 246
Perth Concert Hall Wednesday 17 June, 8pm | Bookings 9484 1133
City Recital Hall, Sydney Saturday 20 June, 8pm | Bookings 8256 2222
Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House Sunday 21 June, 2.30pm | Bookings 9250 7777
QPAC, Brisbane Monday 22 June, 8pm | Bookings 136 246
City Recital Hall, Sydney Tuesday 23 June, 8pm | Bookings 8256 2222
City Recital Hall, Sydney Wednesday 24 June, 7pm | Bookings 8256 2222
Anita’s Theatre, Thirroul Thursday 25 June, 7.30pm | Bookings 132 849