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Australian orchestra outshines its guest

The orchestra's music director is Richard Tognetti (center). (Herbert Barrett Management)

For some in the audience, Pieter Wispelwey's performance of Josef Haydn's Cello Concerto in C Major was clearly the highlight of the Australian Chamber Orchestra's visit to Jordan Hall on Sunday. The Aussies were back for a second time in the Bank of America Celebrity Series, and they played with the rapport of a string quartet that's been together for 20 years. Their guest artist, the noted Dutch cellist, played brilliantly in a vigorous, nervy, fast-bowed style -- and won himself an encore.

Yet Wispelwey rarely dipped below forte, and when the moderato opening shifted to the serenade-like adagio, one didn't notice an inward turn of thought, a broadening of tempo , or much quieter playing.

Here, and it was the only piece where one felt this, a conductor might have made a difference, for although the concertmaster (and the orchestra's music director) Richard Tognetti was nominally in charge, Wispelwey's priorities were his own. His encore was the prelude to Bach's Cello Suite No. 1, which was so broken up with little pauses, the magic spell of its inexorable circular form was never quite sealed.

The afternoon's prize was, in fact, Tchaikovsky's "Souvenir de Florence" suite, written for a string sextet. When played by 18 strings, it becomes a spring torrent of feeling. There was some breathtaking ensemble playing here, as the strings passed along delicate figures, and their deep bowing created a blazing sun in the climactic moments. Among those who gave fine solo turns were violinist Tognetti, violist Carol Cook, and cellist Julian Thompson.

The concert opened with two Baroque masterpieces -- Corelli's Concerto Grosso in F Major and Vivaldi's Concerto for Four Violins and Orchestra in B Minor -- that showed off the Australians' disciplined, assertive style, with expert solo turns by Tognetti and others. As an encore, we got Debussy's "La fille de cheveau de lin," arranged by Tognetti and played with such silky tone -- why not more of this in the Haydn? -- one hopes Tognetti and his team will keep on going. Their Baroque is good, but their way with Romantic and post-Romantic music is even better.


Australian Chamber Orchestra

Presented by Bank of America Celebrity Series

At: Jordan Hall, Sunday