A Cunning Blog

Long words. Short words. Words that say something.

Beethoven and Brett


The Herald hasn’t got round to posting my review of the Australian Chamber Orchestra last week, so I’m posting it here.

Australian Chamber Orchestra

City Recital Hall, November 21


In 1802 Beethoven took a break in a rural village outside Vienna. He hoped that, away from the hustle and bustle of the big city, his hearing would improve. It did not. His reaction is documented in the deeply moving Heiligenstadt Testament. When composer Brett Dean was commissioned to write a work for the viola section of Berlin Philharmonic it was these words he turned to.

The Australian Chamber Orchestra presented Testament in Dean’s orchestral version, alongside Beethoven’s two 4s – the fourth piano concerto and the fourth symphony, written in Beethoven’s prolific outpouring of music after his stay in Heiligenstadt. It was a poignant comparison: on one hand the daring, poised and ultimately optimistic music of the piano concerto and, on the other, the disturbing ringing, buzzing, shifting sounds from string players deliberately disabled by rosin-free bows. I did not enjoy Testament, but I did experience intense emotions — disorientation, frustration, hope and grim determination — driven by Dean’s dark and densely patterned score.

Croatian pianist Dejan Lazic quickly banished the sonic turmoil of Testament with a clarity of sound which made heroics unnecessary. It was an original, even eccentric performance, which chased fingertwisting runs with a playful precociousness and lingered soulfully at unexpected points of interest. Eccentricity has never been a problem for the ACO, and Richard Tognetti directed the ensemble in a keen and intelligent response to his provocative statements. All in all, a virtuoso conversation.

After the interval the orchestra returned for Beethoven’s Symphony No. 4. Tognetti once again directed a dazzlingly original interpretation. ‘Original’ is often code for dramatically fast or super slow tempi, or mannered extremes of dynamics, but not here. The intricately crafted articulation and exhilarating note-bashing all served to underline the delicious tension between stability and instability. Add to that a wind section which nailed every note with thrilling energy, and hopefully, notwithstanding coughing solos, this performance will make it, as planned, to a live CD release.

Published in Sydney Morning Herald, 23 November 2009

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