Once upon a time string orchestras were thick on the ground here: there was Boyd Neel, Reginald Jacques, the English Chamber Orchestra and other ensembles often providing good concerts so that we heard Arthur Bliss' fine Music for Strings, the Frank Bridge Variations of Britten and other pieces that are not so frequently played now. But 3000 miles away there is one class act, the Australian Chamber Orchestra. It was founded as far back as 1975 but gained strength in '89 when Richard Tognetti was appointed Artistic Director and Lead Violin. And now, nearly a quarter of a century later he is still there. And he still looks as fresh as he did then and he has not lost any of his ability to play like a master and to uphold his by now international reputation for being a fine trainer of string players (and they sometimes sprout wind and brass for the bigger classics).
The ACO is here to visit Edinburgh for the Festival and London's Cadogan Hall. The programme began with a Paganini gallimaufry, a Caprice on Pag's Caprices, thought up by Tognetti himself, a pleasant overture/cum visiting card, flitting between No. 20 in D and No. 17 in E flat. Curiously the scalic upbeat to the E flat was not articulated so that one heard the notes and not just a flurry. Why, I wondered? Next we heard that fine Oz composer Richard Meale in tonal mood, his somewhat contrived Cantilena Pacifica. The first half ended with another of Tognetti's enlargements: the String Quartet of Maurice Ravel. These string orchestral versions are like viewing a familiar sculpture from an unusual angle and they make one rethink, usually with pleasure, a favourite piece of chamber music, perhaps introducing it to some listeners.
Dawn Upshaw, American soprano, delighted us with songs by Schumann, Schoenberg and Schubert, each accompanied by strings. Mondnacht, magical evocation of nocturnal love, the Litanei from the String Quartet No 2 and Tod und das Mädchen, three teutonic gifts to the world. The concert ended with more Schoenberg, his early, tonal masterpiece, Transfigured Night, Verklärte Nacht, an Art Deco scene that sounds to me always as if it were an Egon Schiele canvas buried in pink wallpaper. The work is violently passionate as if it would tear your heart out, an engulfing experience.
A special bouquet for the principal viola player, Christopher Moore, whose sound on his instrument was beautiful.