It feels eerily like things have come full circle. From Stokowski’s Bach, lush and lugubrious, to the so-called cobweb brigade, blowing the dust off old scores and treatises to let the music speak for itself. And now the HIPsters, restoring the mud of history to those pristine patterns. Vibrato, portamenti, notes inegales, pitching and rolling through the looking glass of twenty-first century scholarship.
None of which really matters, on one level. “We readily acknowledge that we will never know if we are getting it exactly ‘right’,” says Megan Lang, education manager of the Australian Romantic and Classical Orchestra (ARCO). What does matter is that this orchestra, a relatively new kid on the block, is bringing an academic rigour and intellectual curiosity to performing music which has sat so comfortably in the mainstream as to have avoided much of the endless stylistic skirmishes surrounding baroque music. Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Wolf and, later in the season, Rossini, Schubert and Mozart: music we think we know, reframed. Works which have very much acquired a life of their own, based around score-based analysis, run through the new musicology mill to emerge not as timeless works of art, but as living history.
With their first concert for 2017 ARCO (the orchestra formerly known as orchestra seventeen88) has staked its claim as the next big thing in historically-informed performance. It’s a band stacked with international experts sitting alongside dynamic new faces, all brandishing instruments with impeccable pedigrees for those unexpected sounds. They’re intent on their aim, they’re excited and they’re good. Very good.
They’re good, but not great. Not yet. Beethoven’s Overture to Coriolan opens with a fearless blast and an impressive sense of ensemble. And his 12 Contradanses, which the orchestra presents interleaved with extracts from the composer’s heart-rending Heiligenstadt Testament, read by artistic director Richard Gill, skip along, in irony-laced technicolour. His Romance in F major, however, doesn’t quite find its mojo (if indeed, there is a mojo to find – I’ve never managed to make sense of the strangely awkward Romances) although Rachel Beesley plays with knowing style. Indeed, ARCO’s interpretation of Beethoven wears scholarship on its sleeve, interpolating slides and blips and gestures which yell ‘bet-you-didn’t-think-that-was-authentic’. It’s surprising, fascinating even, but it still feels a little mannered, like an actor doing a good rendition of a regional accent, but still occasionally slipping into their native vowels.
ARCO speaks Mendelssohn, however, like a native. His Symphony in A major op.90 ‘Italian’ rips off the stage with glittering urgency, and the period tang of phrasing feels so alive, so right. The rusty growl of period bassoons and basses underwrites the rich textures and the first violins in particular play with a clean but not brash fluency that could fool you into thinking all those notes are easy. Meanwhile the horns demonstrate to perfection the abilities and, more delicious, the inabilities of their instruments, walking the tightrope of wobbly overtones and harmonics without flinching.
At the end of the concert, as the applause dies down and audiences check their bus timetables, orchestral members turn to each other, smiling, shaking hands, hugging in a touching demonstration of collegiality. They know they’ve done good. And they know there’s more to come.
The Australian Romantic and Classical Orchestra perform Rossini and Schubert in May, and Spohr and Mozart in September. Highly recommended.