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Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphonies n° 1 in C major, opus 21, n° 2 in D major, opus 36, & n° 3 in E‑Flat major “Eroica”, opus 55
Australian Chamber Orchestra, Australian National Academy of Music (ANAM), Richard Tognetti (artistic director and lead violin)
Live recording: City Recital Hall, Sydney, Australia (February 11‑16, 2020) – 102’
2 CDs ABC Classic ABCL0077  (2) – Booklet in English

Under Richard Tognetti, the Australian Chamber Orchestra (ACO) have established and grown an international reputation for excellence and breadth of interpretation. Their commitment to offering new insights into established repertoire, as well as extensive new commissions is the trademark of their artistry. Maestro Tognetti has, since 1990, formed and moulded a cohesive unit of virtuosic soloists dedicated to creating transformative musical experiences. They have been hailed in the UK as arguably the best chamber orchestra in the world and at home as treasured stalwarts in the cultural calendar, giving more than 100 concerts every year. With an enviable collection of original period instruments, the orchestra gives us a rare opportunity to experience how the music may have sounded in its original form. Live, they are electrifying; broadcast and recorded, particularly in this Live in Concert set, we have the luxury of hearing on repeat, the ease and surety they exude throughout the program. In his notes in the accompanying booklet, Tognetti speaks of “the hardware” of the orchestra with its gut strings, giving us a “renewed sense of balance and texture”, and in this we can hear, condensed the philosophy of practice for this remarkable band.

In the pre-pandemic world of 2020, the concert series which gave rise to this recording, was conceived as an alternative celebration of the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth. Tognetti observes that all the “big” orchestras planned to end their year with resounding “B9’s”, but the ACO decided to sneak in “early with B1, 2 and 3”. He associates special poignancy to the celebration of Beethoven in that the master was born in the year that Europeans first arrived on this land, spawning massive disturbance and dislocation for the original inhabitants. So too, in Europe, was the rise of Napoleon’s empire, the new direction in music and the arts represented by the “Big B” and the continuation of the vast journeys of ‘discovery’ preceding the era of British colonialism on this continent. The ACO sets out to remedy the fact that Australia has been late to adopt Beethoven, and the scheduling a program of B1, 2 & 3 is a good means to remedy that.

Symphony n° 1 exudes leisurely confidence and determination despite having been rushed into completion prior to its premier. It earned great audience favouritism and remains a delight. The lush strings of the ACO ensemble belie their “period” status; rounded, full and rich, they dominate the four movements. The musical “Friends” joining the band for this concert feature strongly– resounding timpani, bright woodwind and brass – in the early movements. It is, however, the finale which lingers in the memory. Tognetti’s reading of the score is nuanced and subtle: dark shading and glowing, luminous highlights add to the pleasure of this Symphony.

In the Symphony n° 2, we hear the ideas of the First expanded and developed. Almost comic in its use of rhythm, the opening movement invokes a distinctly theatrical air. The upper register strings here offer brilliance and sparkle to the rumbling pronouncements of their lower voiced cousins, but we never sense Beethoven attempting to preach to us about his new and innovative take on the symphonic form. There is a freshness and vitality to the playing here which is at once restrained and calculated. It emphasises the development and broadening of Beethoven’s revolution in musical ideas, taking the symphonic genre into realms never explored by his two monumental forbears: Haydn and Mozart. The second movement (“Larghetto”), in particular, is gorgeously restrained, and again we hear the distinctive confidence and ease with which the ACO deliver their repertoire.

For all the beauty and novelty of B1 & 2, it is B3 which truly captures the imagination of the modern audience. Reflecting Beethoven’s sometime infatuation with Napoleon, this symphony was to have been called the “Bonaparte”, but for the fall in the composer’s eyes when it became clear that the General who declared himself Emperor was as much about self-aggrandisement as any tyrant. Confident, dramatic and theatrical from the outset, this performance highlights the myriad tiny elements and adornments to the central line of the opening movement. The celli, in particular, are ravishing, emboldened by their bass cousins, they propel the narrative of this movement forward in a pulsing and reverberating drive. They support radiant, energetic violins in their vividly ornamental decoration, as elevated and vainglorious as Napoleon himself. This is foretelling of the sepulchral funeral march in the second movement: a sombre and moving tribute to the fallen of war and a declaration of the human costs of grand enterprises.

The dazzling finale to B3 is realised by the ACO, marshalling its expanded forces to deliver a bold and confident statement about advancement of the individual’s knowledge and through that of society as a whole. The vivacity and energy here are contagious.

I greatly enjoyed this recording, and I am pleased Richard Tognetti notes in his opening remarks, that they “had the foresight to hang some mics” in the Sydney Recital Centre to capture this last concert series before the pandemic shut us all down for so long. I highly recommend this recording.

Gregory Pritchard




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