Brahms Piano Quintet | Australian Chamber OrchestraLeft – Richard Tognetti. Photo – Paul Henderson-Kelly

I've a confession. I love the Australian Chamber Orchestra so much, my partner's getting jealous. She's understandably worried my love for it may be greater than my love for her. If only the ACO would desist from such consistent excellence, I wouldn't have this problem of competition for my affections. So, how has it enchanted me this time 'round? Well, for this, Tour Six of the 2013 season, the headline work is Brahms; specifically, his piano quintet. For the occasion, a pared-down orchestra (Richard Tognetti, director and violin; Satu Vanska, violin; Christopher Moore, viola; Timo-Veikko Valve, cello) collaborates with 'America's most communicative pianist', Jeremy Denk. The reputation that preceded him seemed to come to the fore on the night, for he was more than ready to expound on the pieces he was to play, which included Tognetti's virile arrangements of Bach's meticulous Canons on a Goldberg Ground (BWV 1087), interspersed with Ligeti's Etudes (7, 10, 11 & 13).

Goldberg Ground refers to two things, obviously. The first, Goldberg, believed to be Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, thought likely to have been the first performer of a harpsichord work (BWV 988), which thereafter bore his name. The second refers to ground bass, 'a short, recurring melodic pattern in the bass part of a composition, that serves as the principal structural element' (rule, Britannica!). In this instance, it's certainly short: just eight notes; the first eight fundamentals of the thirty-two bar bassline of the Goldbergs. Bach seems to have been keen (as I think Denk pointed out, introducing the pieces) to flaunt his mathematical as well as musical genius, by showing just how many variation he could achieve, by arranging and rearranging that paltry octet of tones.

Tognetti show us his genius for arrangement as well; his intention, as is typical, isn't scholarship or fidelity to tradition, but innovation. Thus, rather than the dry rendering one might expect and get from the likes of Richard Egarr, their recapitulation via piano and string quartet yields something much more complex, subtle, sensual and edifying, as against mere signification of Bach's compositional techniques and strategies, tantalising insight into the process that resulted in the Goldberg Variations per se, or existence as but musicological curiosities. We're lucky to hear these canons at all, of course. And, before 1974, it was only possible to hear numbers eleven and thirteen, as it wasn't until then that all fourteen were found scrawled, in Johann Sebastian's hand, appended to a manuscript first owned by the maestro.

Believe me, leave it to Bach to explore the contrapuntal possibilities. Let him do the math. If you try and penetrate it in theoretical terms, chances are you'll end up in a state of chronic mindfuck. It's probably most easily appreciated with the graphic support of a manuscript. But best of all, for beginners, is to let it wash over you. Just lie back, or sit back, and enjoy it. Hearing is believing. Although I should be careful not to trivialise, chastened by the prickly insurance salesman, Charles Ives, who cautioned 'beauty in music is too often confused with something that lets the ears lie back in an easy chair'.

Suffice to say, even with the first canon, Bach is up to his mischievous, smartarsed, old tricks: if you look carefully at the score, you'll note a mirrored image of the bass clef at the end of the sequence, indicating it should be played backwards, as well. JS leaves us up the creek without a paddle, since he gives no indication of instrumentation, or repetition. It's BYO paddle and, of the numerous orchestrations I've heard to date, there's none finer than Mr T's string quartet, plus piano. It's tempting to fantasise about the corpulent Johann taking bows with the strudel-starved, lean, mean RT, the bewigged one warmly congratulating the tousled Tognetti on his perspicacity and musicality. Certainly, the ostensibly humourless portraits we see of JSB give no hint of the transcendental exuberance or stately grace of his music, no his playful intellectualism.

Watching Denk play, as he repetitively leans intently towards the piano, reminds me of shockeling at the Wailing Wall; or a turkey, gobbling. What he ekes out from the keyboard, however, is more like Thanksgiving, but an aural rather than culinary celebration of the bountiful musical harvest provided by the likes of Ligeti, who stands, undoubtedly, as one of the most toweringly innovative composers of the second half of the last century. Certainly, few composers demand more dexterity from a pianist and, in this, Denk doesn't disappoint. He begins the seventh etude, for example, with sublime delicacy, but as it meanders to an almost thunderous climax, the escalation in dynamics is stealthy. And, in his superhuman hands, the suddenly approaching, imaginary beast withdraws just as dramatically.

What you're hearing is even more incredible than you may think: when it comes to the eleventh etude, En Suspens, the right hand is playing in 6/4, the left 4/4! Expletive deleted. You might think Ligeti is classical esoterica, but not so. You're bound to know his music from 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Shining and Eyes Wide Shut. Yes, apparently, Kubrick was a fan. In his recording of Ligeti's etudes, Denk has referred to them as 'bitesized bits of infinity' which links them tidily to Bach's knocking on heaven's door mathematical mysticism; arguably, never more concentrated than in his canons. It's an important summation of their musical integrity and quality, too, which can be so easily obscured by their technical wizardry, which draws on all manner of out-thereness, from the aforementioned polymetric, to the cross-rhythmic; deploying everything from mesmeric, gamelan-like motifs to crushing chords; geometric contrapuntalism to blue-noteworthiness. Rest assured, in the flesh, these pieces are as visceral and vital as they are conceptual.

If Ligeti was ahead of his European contemporaries, Charles Ives (championed by, apart from Denk, no lesser renegade than Leonard Bernstein), who annoyingly defies all the romantic cliches pertaining to decomposing composers, was ahead of his time, in the way and degree of Leonardo, or Einstein. His Holding Your Own! scherzo is but two minutes long, but is almost impossibly dense with witty interpolations and a fearless playing off of keys and tempos against one another; hence the title, since it's almost as competitive as it is collaborative. It's a filling appetiser, before the main course of the third movement of his second piano sonata, which is an evocation of what Henry James called 'the biggest little place in America': Concord, Massachusetts. For a classical work, The Alcotts begins in a fashion that is, at once homely, sentimental and affecting, before the universally-recognised drama of Beethoven's Fifth makes itself known, which suits Ives narrative scheme, in which Beth March, a figment of Louisa May's imagination made literary flesh in Little Women, plays a spinet piano (essentially, a small harpsichord) at Orchard House, the Alcotts' home. It's an under, nostalgic conceit and Denk's sensitivity to the piece honours Ives and his romantic vision.

Bach's Keyboard Concerto in F Minor (BWV 1056) concluded the first half of the concert. It sports practically everything we revere in Bach. And possibly more. Or less. Less is more, after all. And there can be no better example, musically, I shouldn't think. The first and last aural imprint of this work is simplicity. The solo piano parts are clear and concise; interspersed with swirls of ritornello, as was the baroque fashion; the finesse and precision of the pizzicato is phenomenal. And how 'bout that serenity?!

Denk and the ACO appear to like F Minor so much, they decided to present Brahms' piano quintet (opus 34), devised in that very key. The strings harmonise, set against the solo piano which, amidst them, sounds like Little Red Riding Hood venturing tentatively into the forest, only to be warned of impending tragedy by bending trees. There's peace while set sets out her picnic rug and sits quietly, enjoying a fresh baguette and ripe brie, but then, what or who's that, stealing through the tall timbers? And that's just the first movement. The second is gentle, with the piano leading the strings, which respond more sweetly than before. It's a complex, sophisticated, uncompromising work, of an ilk that's attracted the admiration of composers of divergent persuasions; from Elgar to Schoenberg. There's nothing else quite like it.

A collateral pleasure of attending an ACO concert is visual. Yes, I could be referring to the agreeable countenance of Satu Vanska (I'm only human), but I'm actually referring to the rising passions of the players, individually and collectively, as fever, or fervour, seems to take hold. Tognetti's very colour appears to change. Vanska, eyes closed, seems lost in a reverie that borders on something deeply yogic. I'll have what she's having. Moore looks empathically to his counterparts, fixing his gaze with intensity, as if to penetrate their very souls with x-ray vision, so as to ensure he's riding precisely the same wave. Even Tipi, who looks somewhat more reserved, shows signs of perspiration. This is my reading which, I realise, reflects my own responses as much as (if not much more than) theirs. By the same token, I don't believe it's all in my imagination, for this is the (I reckon) observable point at which each player really lets go, unbridling their personalities and fusing them with the music such that it suddenly leaps off the page and into the ether. And it's the distinguishing characteristic of this orchestra; one that sets it apart from, above and beyond most.

Some years ago, Tognetti bemoaned the loss of the ratbag, all but killed off by ecorats. Happily, like sightings of yetis or Tassie tigers, there are still a few around. They might otherwise be called larrikins. Tognetti is one. Denk is another. Men inspired and enlivened by many passions. And imbued, almost bursting at the seams, with passion. In coming together, as well as in devising this programme informed by the music of a ragtag of ratbag composers, they've found places to invest their appetite for innovation.   

Australian Chamber Orchestra
Brahms Piano Quintet

Director Richard Tognetti

Tour Dates: 12 - 26 August 2013

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