Australian Chamber Orchestra charts its own course in Celebrity Series concert

April 14, 2019 at 12:17 pm

By Andrew J. Sammut

Paul Lewis played Mozart's xx with the Australian Chamber Orchestra Saturday night at Jordan Hall. Photo: Robert Torres

Paul Lewis played Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 12 with the Australian Chamber Orchestra Saturday night at Jordan Hall. Photo: Robert Torres

What can an orchestra bring to works not necessarily intended for its numbers? This was the question asked and answered by the Australian Chamber Orchestra in their Celebrity Series of Boston concert debut with pianist Paul Lewis at NEC’s Jordan Hall Saturday night.

Under the direction of lead violinist Richard Tognetti, the ACO performed Bach’s open-ended The Art of Fugue and two Beethoven quartets re-arranged for orchestra alongside a piano concerto by Mozart that makes orchestration a bonus rather than a requirement.

It was a program that inspired curiosity, and even doubt among some concertgoers overheard at intermission wondering what to expect from an orchestral version of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 13 in B-flat Major. But the ACO, playing with absolute control over its sound and concept, justified its musical choices on Saturday, starting with The Art of Fugue.

Bach did not design it for any specific ensemble. He did not indicate scoring and the topic is still hotly debated. The fugue is also one of the oldest and most cerebral techniques in Western classical music. Bach is considered its master, and this work the culmination of his life’s work, so interpretational stakes are high.

Selecting the first four movements, the ACO combined the vibrant tone and lithe energy of period instruments with the heft and slice of modern ones. Carefully shaped phrases, ample dynamic variety and sharp attacks marked their readings from Contrapunctus I onward. The dotted rhythms of Contrapunctus II still swung even as the voices took an emotionally and rhythmically tense route.

The addition of two horns and two oboes to the ACO’s core 18 strings did not significantly change this already colorful ensemble. Contrapunctus 3 included a slightly grating sonority on top of its chromaticism. Contrapunctus 4 was entirely pizzicato and startling in its range of timbre. The Swingle Singer-style vocalise interpolated by the ensemble also neither inhibited nor enhanced the strings.

More certain in terms of scoring and miles away in mood, Mozart’s sparkling Piano Concerto No. 12 in A Major is one of three composed early on in his Vienna period. These works were written to allow home performance (and therefore higher sales), with optional winds and one-per-part strings.

The ACO and Lewis operated in fascinating contrasts throughout the brisk opening Allegro, sometimes thoughtfully differentiated in their dialogues, other times imitating each other’s phrasing. The orchestra once again shaped each note while Lewis focused on larger arcs through his sturdy technique. Lewis’s lines were clear, and the intricacies of Mozart’s pianism benefited from his strong left hand.

The central Andante lovingly quotes from an overture by Mozart’s recently deceased mentor (and Johann’s youngest son) J.C. Bach. Lewis let the notes do the emotional heavy lifting while the strings’ heartfelt delivery and translucence were more convincing. The final Rondeau: Allegretto pitted a zipping first subject against a sterner second one. Lewis’s regal bearing brought out the mirth and assurance of this concerto. It ended with the ease of a jam session between orchestra and soloist.

The second half of the program was devoted to Beethoven, starting with his String Quartet No. 13. This was one of the late quartets written shortly before his death, at the height of his prowess and considered some of the finest models of this tradition.

The opening Adagio spoke with warmth, lyricism and sweep. The brief Presto’s momentum would not have been out of place in a Baroque sinfonia. The ACO leaned into the ominous first notes of the otherwise playful Andante, highlighting its brief indeterminacy before jumping into bright violin textures over skipping cellos and bass.

The lilting Alla danza tedesca was marred by balance issues, guest principal violist Hanna Lee’s viola getting swamped by pitchy violins. Yet the mellifluous Cavatina was played as if it were a single breath. Palpable tension and ultra-soft dynamics over drones set up for the concluding fugue.

The Grosse Fuge — originally the last movement of the String Quartet No. 13 — caused such a stir at this quartet’s premiere that Beethoven was pressured into writing a different movement and publishing the fugue separately. Its jarring feel and fiendish difficulty are now seen as signs of genius. The work has taken on almost worshipful esteem.

Even with some bow-shredding articulation and the ACO’s disruptive force, their orchestral rendition took away some of the original work’s bitterness. The performance had a rounder, more resonant dissonance, more like a wall closing in than a jagged surface. The fugato section was as gentle as the fugue was harsh. Informing the fugue’s return, individual lines were now deliberately clearer without losing the overall sense of struggle. Tonal ambiguities and false cadences were suspenseful to the end.

Celebrity Series of Boston presents violinist Itzhak Perlman and pianist Evgeny Kissin 8 p.m. April 22 at Symphony Hall. celebrityseries.org; 617-482-2595

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