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  • Writer's pictureCatherine Flutsch

Bach and The Beyond: A Rare Misstep for the Australian Chamber Orchestra


Review: ACO StudioCast online concert, premiered on 31 March, then on demand until 31 December 2021. Tickets available here.

[Disclosure: The ACO provided me with a ticket to Bach and The Beyond for the purposes of this review.]

Bach and The Beyond is the second offering in the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s series of concerts designed, filmed and recorded especially for streaming. I reviewed the first concert, Rapture and Revolution here. Rapture and Revolution was one of the most beautiful online concerts I’ve ever seen and heard – truly revolutionary in every sense.

Bach and The Beyond is a bit of a different story. The programming is interesting; made of up four Bach pieces, five pieces composed by Richard Tognetti, the ACO’s principal and musical director, and a song, Riverman, composed by Nick Drake. All the pieces have been arranged by Tognetti. The concert is just under one hour long and the Bach portion of the concert finishes at 24 minutes. The vast majority of the concert, therefore, is made up of pieces composed by Tognetti and Nick Drake’s song.

Unlike Rapture and Revolution, this concert is filmed in black and white, set in what looks like a recording studio, with a multitude of lights, stands, microphones and general recording studio paraphernalia. While Rapture and Revolution was expansive, vast and open, Bach and The Beyond is dark, moody and claustrophobic – it looks exciting.

It was interesting to see and hear the Bach portion of the concert in this moody setting with various members of the orchestra standing on different levels, on small, raised platforms – the setting enhanced my experience of the Bach pieces.

In the Bach portion of the concert, two pieces stood out. Tognietti’s arrangement of Bach’s Partita No. 3 in E major for solo violin was a sheer delight. Beautifully precise and refined, the delicate pizzicato accompaniament across the orchestra supported Togneti’s playing in a considered and subtle way.

The second stand out piece from the Bach portion of the concert was the “Erbarme dich” from St Matthew Passion. Tognetti substitutes the cello for the alto vocal part – an inspired decision. The cello part, played by Finnish cellist Timo-Veikko Valve, and its interaction with the violin is pure listening pleasure.

Watching and listening to Valve’s fluid and relaxed playing style and hearing the rich yet light tone he achieves, even at the higher end of the cello’s range, made me understand that Valve is one of the living greats.

The rest of the concert, made up of Tognetti’s own compositions and the Nick Drake song was not so successful. I like the idea of beginning a concert with Bach and then pushing the concert beyond. It is an idea full of possibility. However, the logic that unfolded over the first third of the concert didn’t seem to follow through to The Beyond portion of the concert. For me "The Beyond" narrative wasn't fully realised and the choice of pieces in this section felt quite random.

Everything was relentless and dissonant, but not in a good way. The lightness of touch displayed with such virtuosity in the Bach portion, seemed to turn insipid. The flashing lights, used to incredible effect in the Rapture and Revolution concert were overused – the effect became tiresome.

Usually, I love to hear modern classical music by living composers – to hear what our living musicians are thinking and feeling. But these pieces, and the way they were presented, started to feel a little bit pretentious.

Some of the pieces, including Nick Drake’s song, required vocals. Satu Vänskä, the incredibly talented violinist, sang the vocal parts. I know that Vänskä has had some rave reviews of her singing voice in the past, but these songs did not suit her voice. I would have loved to see what a truly great solo singer, perhaps even a soul singer, could have made of the vocalisations in these pieces.

It is quite a statement to put your own compositions next to those of one of the greatest composers the world has ever known. When I listen to avant garde classical music, I want to be blown away, challenged, pushed out of my comfort zone, forced to confront myself and my prejudices and to leave the piece in awe.

Despite being composed many hundreds of years ago, I experienced all of these things listening to the Bach portion of the concert.

Bach is a very tough act to follow.


Square Stage
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