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Review: Australian Chamber Orchestra at Birmingham Symphony Hall

Norman Stinchcombe reviews Australian Chamber Orchestra at Birmingham Symphony Hall

Australian Chamber Orchestra, which is performing a piece written by Jonny Greenwood, the guitarist from Radiohead, at Birmingham Symphony Hall.

Haydn’s Symphony No 83 has a twee nickname, The Hen, and an amiable surface. But there’s a dark seismic seam running underneath, revealed in a terrific performance by the Australian Chamber Orchestra.

Directed from the first violin by Richard Tognetti, they were brilliantly effective in capturing the symphony’s shifting moods as when the andante’s mellifluous main theme is interrupted by sinister spiccato strings before a violent forte eruption. With the winds seated at the front with the cellos, and fiddles divided left and right, Haydn’s interplay between orchestral sections had chamber music clarity.

Steven Osborne never gets in the music’s way. He sits at the piano stool – but the composer is always in the driving seat. In Mozart’s piano concerto No 27, for example, the central movement’s sublime melody was wonderfully shaped without resorting to prettification or excessive rubato and was never slowed down from its specified larghetto. The cadenzas didn’t obtrude with seams showing, and the allegro finale absolutely sparkled supported by excellent work from the ACO.

Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir of Florence was originally for string sextet but while the ACO used triple those forces the gain in sonority didn’t mean a sacrifice in transparency. The adagio’s interplay between first violin and cello had the ardour of an operatic duet – marvellous! In Jonny Greenwood’s Water the composer played with the band on one of two tanpura, a fretless lute. There are tinkling piano ostinatos, a little eerie nachtmusik and some Psycho­-style abrasive strings – 17 minutes of movie music sans film.

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