Viennese violinist Benjamin Schmid is a versatile player, at home in jazz and classical repertoires but specialising in works by Austrian composers. In this concert he led the Australian Chamber Orchestra in a wide-ranging program of Viennese music, which avoided the most obvious choice of Strauss and started with the non-Viennese Bach’s Concerto for two violins. In the 1780s, Vienna was an early centre of the Bach revival, and Bach had an influence on all the composers in this concert.
Schmid gave a restrained performance of the Double Concerto, using a short bowing technique in the German baroque tradition. ACO’s Helena Rathbone on the other violin used more flowing Italianate bowing, but the balance between the two players, and the ensemble, was excellent.
In the other pieces, Schmid came to life. He led the orchestra in a dramatic rendering of the slow movement Lento religioso from Korngold’s Symphonic Serenade (1947), a difficult and rarely played piece. It was composed shortly after the war when Korngold returned to his native Vienna from Hollywood, where his film scores had won him two Oscars, and viewed the destruction brought by the Nazis on Viennese culture. This performance captured in the close string parts the fine calibrations of pain as the strings move through anguish and darkness towards resolution.
Schmid approached HK Gruber’s Violin Concerto “Nebelsteinmusik” (1988) with exuberance. In this Australian premiere of a work by one of the leading composers of contemporary Vienna, Schmid switched frequently and adroitly from conducting the orchestra to his violin. There are many musical influences at play here, but jazz, which was forbidden in the Third Reich, is the foremost and most liberating. Schmid achieved a brilliance of tone in the high notes of the first movement before segueing into the tender second movement In time with the heartbeat with its quiet pizzicato passages and waltz-time lyricism, again closing on an exquisite pianissimo high note. In the third movement his violin’s warm low notes and playful pizzicato moved into a positively jaunty mood and rollicking flourish.
After the interval Schmid gave an engaging introduction to the works of the second half. He started with a favourite of his from an earlier era – Schubert’s Rondo in A major (1816), a dramatic piece with the gravitas of a concerto suited to the virtuoso violinist. Schmid was visibly moved as he embarked on the Adagio opening, took the orchestra through a wide dynamic range and into the Allegro giusto, ending with panache.
For the music of Joseph Lanner, a contemporary of Johann Strauss Senior, Schmid donned a white jacket, to the delight of the audience and maybe in homage to the pop status of the Viennese waltz. Lanner more or less invented the Viennese waltz by refining the local triple-time folk dance, the Ländler. These two later works – Die Romantiker (1841) and Die Werber (1835) – have an intro, five waltzes and a finale and were played with romantic, if at times laboured, exuberance.
The final pieces were by Georg Breinschmid, a composer and bass player who often performs with Schmid and is now almost exclusively a jazz musician. Musette pour Elisabeth (2008) and Wien bleibt Krk (2008) pay tribute to the multicultural city of Vienna. In this Australian premiere of these eclectic works, Schmid’s playing was infectious and mercurial, skipping from march-time to a 7/8 Balkan gypsy rhythm. ACO’s Maxime Bibeau was less comfortable on the jazz-infused bass lines, but the duo worked well together to give an entertaining performance with lots of musical references and jokes.
The ACO gave a beautifully nuanced performance that complemented the artistry of this sought-after violinist and followed his leadership in this challenging and diverse program.
Australian Chamber Orchestra presents
Venue: Melbourne Town Hall
Dates: 18 – 19 September, 2011
Duration: 2 hours
Bookings: www.theartscentre.com.au | 1300 182 183