Australian Chamber Orchestra/Hewitt, Melbourne

2003-05-22 / The Age, Melbourne / Clive O´Connell

Australian Chamber Orchestra (Australia Tour)

This program called Bach and Sons featured works by the inescapable Johann Sebastian and a sinfonia from each of Johann Christoph Friedrich, Johann Christian and the comparatively adventurous Carl Philipp Emanuel.

This last work excepted, the concert was dominated by the father from whose colossal catalogue we heard four works. Directing the exercise was Canadian-born keyboard expert Angela Hewitt.

For the sons’ pieces, a short sinfonia from Sebastian’s Cantata Ich hatte viel Bekummernis and the Concerto in C minor for Oboe and Violin, Hewitt played from a central harpsichord, setting the pace and employing flowing arm gestures to shape the orchestra’s phrases.

Not that she needed to, as these players are expert enough and have put in the hard yards of rehearsal to know what to do and when to do it, particularly having given six performances of these works in the preceding nine days. Still, it didn’t hurt anybody and it looked elegant.

When it came to the centrepoint of the afternoon – two of the keyboard concertos straddling the interval – Hewitt changed to a Steinway, ensuring that we could hear every detail of the solo part and keeping the keyboard content safe from being obscured by the ACO’s youthful enthusiasm. In fact, the move from the harpsichord was probably prudent.

The substantial E major Concerto showed Hewitt’s style as non-confrontational, if not restrained. Much of the ornamentation in the right hand was treated with a welcome subtlety.

Also a significant element in Hewitt’s approach is the lightness of the bass line, which is present, but not used as a kind of weighty anchor to give added solidity to the work’s progress.

This work is less expansive in its set-out than the E major work and pianists often succumb to the temptation to treat it as a predecessor of the Sturm und Drang artistic movement, forcing the pithy first movement into a passionate, sombre mould.

Hewitt’s approach is more emphatic about its detail – if anything, under-playing the work’s dark colours and keeping her string accompaniment away from the trap of over-emphatic sawing.

Helena Rathbone, standing in for Richard Tognetti, led the group with practised assurance, collaborating with the ACO’s oboist, Antony Chesterman, in the double concerto, which also impressed for the soloists’ agility and security.

The interpretation served as a complement to Hewitt’s solos in removing much of the heavy inexorability of metre that bedevils and confounds many an attempt at major works by the composer who serves as the fulcrum for Western music’s development.