Alstaedt Plays Haydn & Tchaikovsky

Alstaedt Plays Haydn Tchaikovsky ACO 2024Australian Chamber Orchestra. Adelaide Town Hall. 25 Jun 2024


As some foods prepare the palate for other foods, so too can carefully selected music prepare the aural senses for other music. Who would have thought that Aroura, by Greek-French avant-garde contemporary composer Iannis Xenakis, would be an ideal introduction to Joseph Haydn’s Cello Concerto in C major, Hob. VIIb/1? Well, Nicolas Altstaedt thought so, and it is a stroke of musical programming genius.


Nicolas Altstaedt is one of the world’s best cellists and he is performing with and directing the Australian Chamber Orchestra in its current Australian tour. The program he has curated is a mix of iconic and well-known works, such as the Haydn, contrasted with compositions that would likely only be familiar to aficionados, such as the Xenakis. The overall impact of the program was a sense of exhilaration and reawakening.


In addition to the Haydn concerto and Xenakis’ Aroura, the program also included the first and second movements from Haydn’s The Seven Last Words of Christ, three movements from contemporary Hungarian composer György Kurtág’s Officium breve, in memoriam Andræ Szervánszky, Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme, Op. 33 (arranged by Bernard Rofe), and Four Transylvanian Dances by Swiss composer Sandor Veress.


The concert featured sixteen ACO musicians (mostly performing on highly regarded period instruments) ably led by principal violin Helena Rathbone, with Altstaedt directing the concert, performing as a member of the ensemble and also as soloist in the Concerto and the Rococo Variations.


Altstaedt looked dramatic on the podium, with his shock of unruly hair, and his expansive relaxed-fit chemise and harem style pants. His first appearance spells anything but conventionality, and there was nothing predictable from then on. With little fuss, Altstaedt sat amongst the ensemble and led them immediately into the Introduzione from The Seven Last Words of Christ, which was followed with almost no break (and certainly no time for applause) by the Officium breve, and then the terremoto section from the from The Seven Last Words. With the completion of this ‘bracket’, the audience was finally able to show its appreciation, and it was deservedly generous. We heard hauntingly beautiful melodies contrasted with strong pulsing chords. The modern juxtaposed with the classical. Raw emotion set alongside mystical introspection. Fresh ways to listen to music that has endured the ages.


Altstaedt’s reading of the Rococo Variations put his full arsenal of technical excellence and musical mastery on display. Being a relatively small ensemble, comprising mainly period instruments with wonderfully warm tones, Altstaedt’s playing was foregrounded and was luminous in its clarity and and almost impetuous with its sustained momentum. It was like discovering the composition for the first time all over again.


The Four Transylvanian Dances exuded the influence of Bartók and were brim full of excitement and joie de vivre. Stefanie Farrands’ work as principal viola was a highlight as was the perfectly synchronised foot stamping in the final dance. Again, clarity from individual instruments was always evident.


After the interval the audience was at first confronted by the initial chaos and cacophony of the Aroura. Altstaedt conducted from the podium and did not play. There was no attempt to beat the timing. Rather, he communicated the ‘feel’ of the extraordinary piece with a darting glance here, a look there, an expressive and appreciative smile on occasion, and always with a clear connection between himself and Rathbone. When the Aroura was over, Altstaedt led the ensemble immediately into the Haydn concerto as he gently but assuredly took hold of his own cello and seated himself on the front podium. With perfect timing he readied himself and entered precisely on time. Novel, and extraordinary. The sense of melody throughout was strong, and there was a playfulness reminiscent of the great Jacqueline du Pre. Altstaedt’s attack and pace in the finale was refreshing, and the audience erupted into applause, sheering, and whistling as soon as the final note was played.


Altstaedt was called back four times by the audience. It would have been more if he hadn’t chosen to offer a Boccherini encore accompanied by two of the violins. A gentle conclusion to the evening.


It was a magical concert, and much of the joy was due to the skilful and inspired programming as much as it was to the masterful musicianship of seventeen musicians all at the top of their game.


Kym Clayton


When: 25 Jun

Where: Adelaide Town Hall

Bookings: Closed