GOLDBERG VARIATIONS from the Australian Chamber Orchestra under the dynamic direction of Richard Tognetti gave a thrilling  performance.

The first half of this luscious concert was off to a breathlessly fast start with Stravinsky’s Three Pieces for String Quartet , spiky and emphatic with hints of his Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring). The melody bubbles and flows around the Orchestra but this is contrasted with a rich, stickily languid and melancholic section full of yearning.

The Stravinsky was fluidly followed by “Nightfalls”, the first movement of Four Quarters by Thomas Adès, which sizzled , delicately pulsated and shimmered. It was full of melancholy and some of it sounded like wind chimes or evoked the sound of rain.

The bulk of the first half consisted of Tognetti’s arrangement of Canons on a Goldberg Ground. This work is derived from the 14 canons found inscribed in the back of Bach’s personal copy of the Goldbergs, discovered in 1974. This version was performed with Erin Hellyard on piano . The rather circular in format Bach inspired piece was dynamically interpreted and crisply performed with Helyard giving a virtuoso piano performance.

Then came the exquisite GOLDBERG VARIATIONS themselves after interval in a rich performance. Stories abound about the naming and reason behind the naming of the Variations .Listeners are probably  familiar with the now iconic 1955 version by the Canadian pianist, Glenn Gould . Here the ACO performed the arrangement of the Goldbergs by the Canadian early music conductor, Bernard Labadie for string orchestra and continued which suits the ACO wonderfully. It respects Bach with his crisp precision  and seeks to provide a clear reading of what Bach wanted with a warm rich presentation of harmony and rhythm and some late Baroque performance flourishes in an elegant, refined reading of the work. It has many layers of texture and orchestral distribution. The various solos were wonderfully played with great brio showing the teamwork of the Orchestra who paid intense attention throughout.

Some of the variations were heartbreakingly exquisite, others dynamic and bouncy like exploding fireworks .Some had shimmering string sections while in others they were stately and pulsating or in contrast breathlessly scurrying . Mention must be made of the continuo group – Erin Helyard on harpsichord, Axel Wolf on theorbo together with principal cellist, Timo-Veikko Valve. Guest principal viola Stefanie Farrands gave a most moving performance .Tognetti in the final variation had an aching, soaring solo, recapping the ornamental melody from its earlier first appearance  and tenderly closing the finale.

There were cheers and screams and a partial standing ovation at the end.

GOLDBERG VARIATIONS from the Australian Chamber Orchestra  [Facebook] plays City Recital Hall, Sydney, August 8, 10, 11, 14; Sydney Opera House, August 12; QPAC Concert Hall, Brisbane, August 13 2018.