The pairing of the music of Mozart and Britten for this concert may at first sight seem strange. But as the concert proceeded, the connection between these composers, more in terms of musical thought than any thematic or harmonic similarities, unfolded itself disarmingly. The Australian Chamber Orchestra, under the ever more bewitching direction of Richard Tognetti, dived deep into their own treasure chest of technical and interpretive skill to bring to the surface the daring, iconoclastic, experimental, and above all playful agendas that these two composers have in common.

The program consisted of two works written in their teens, and two works written in their early twenties. Mozart’s Divertimento in D, K 136, was written when he was 15, and is full of the excitement of the style of Italian opera, the simplicity and dash of Pergolesi, for example, which Mozart had just encountered first-hand on his recent trip to Italy. Here the whole performance was infected by Tognetti’s playfulness; he almost dances among the orchestra as he plays.

Britten’s Elegy, composed at 16, is likewise full of his immediate musical experience, in this case the wide palette of musical styles to which his teacher Frank Bridge had just introduced him. This Elegy, here given its Australian premiere (!!) is a volcanic hotch-potch of early 20th-century musical idioms, with such unlikely bed-fellows as Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Sibelius, Faure and Debussy rubbing shoulders. The orchestra responded to this just-post-adolescent piece with generosity, relishing (in a most un-English way) the extremeness of its gestures.

His Variations on a theme of Frank Bridge written in his 24th year, is Britten’s homage to his teacher (for whom Britten was his only composition pupil), and at the same time a valediction to many of these stylistic influences. In these Variations there is a great deal of parody – of a Viennese waltz (in the shadow of Ravel’s La Valse), of an Italian aria, where the singer (violin solo) seems to get lost trying to sing Rossini as if it were Puccini; and in the variation Bourree classique his parody of the neoclassical style of Stravinsky and Prokoviev ends up sounding almost like Shostakovich. The orchestra exploited the great variety of textures Britten uses, highlighting the double bass (Maxime Bibeau) just when you had forgotten about it, and even having one variations in which the three viola players have solo parts. First performed in Salzburg, this work marks the fulcrum between these styles and that of Britten’s later music, which is much more transparent and direct, though often still raw – more like Mozart, in fact, and perhaps Mahler.

For Mozart’s Sinfonia concertante,  written in Salzburg when he was 23, Richard Tognetti was joined by the ACO’s principal violist, Stefanie Farrands. Every bit as musically gifted and technically able as Tognetti, she has nowhere near his experience as a soloist, and it was fascinating to hear their musical dialogue unfold in the context of Mozart’s ravishing score. (Not quite as ravishing, it must be said, without the wind and horns of Mozart’s original – I missed them in this version for strings alone). So many phrases are answered between the two soloists, and if the violin came first, it was like a tender request to the viola – can you play this as softly as I am doing? Can you bend the tempo ever so slightly, as this phrase is so melting? And the viola would answer – almost; but I can make such a gorgeous sound! Throughout this performance I admired the varied use of vibrato both in the soloists and the orchestra, and especially the way the cadential dissonances were enjoyed so much that we could hardly hear the resolutions.

The Australian Chamber Orchestra is such a class act. I first knew them 40 years ago as a group of young Australian musicians, eager to sweep the dust off dusty European performance traditions. Now they are an international band of extremely experienced players, but they have never lost that initial, primal energy, that raw engagement with music that makes them so compelling.

I would like to make two other observations about matters a little tangential to the performance itself. One is to acknowledge the note in the program on Britten by Paul Kildea. Kildea has been the artistic director of Music Viva for the last three years, and this organisation is incredibly lucky to have this brilliant, passionate man as its leader, a man who traverses the fields of academic excellence and musical performance with aplomb. For me, someone who also attempts this traverse, it was a real pleasure to read his essay of Britten, and Mozart’s influence on Britten, written with such deep knowledge, deep understanding and flair.

The second is to congratulate the management of the QPAC theatre complex in Brisbane for their attention to every detail of access for disabled people. I attended this concert in the company of someone so physically frail that I thought it might be impossible ever to take her to a concert. The experience was efficient, smooth, and above all caring, in a building very well designed for the disabled. Thank you QPAC!

Event details

Australian Chamber Orchestra presents
Mozart and Britten

Director Richard Tognetti

Venue: QPAC Concert Hall | Corner Melbourne St and Grey St Brisbane QLD
Dates: 23 May 2022
Tickets: $49 – $115
Bookings: www.qpac.com.au

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