Music review: Chopin and the Mendelssohns, Adelaide Town Hall

The Australian Chamber Orchestra made fine music with pianist Polina Leschenko.
Chopin and the Mendelssohns. Image is a headshot of a woman with a side parting and wavy shoulder length hair, tilting her head on one side and smiling at the camera.

The excitement was palpable at the Adelaide Town Hall this week for the Australian Chamber Orchestra (ACO)’s final Adelaide concert for 2023. Seeing them on stage with the extraordinary Russian pianist Polina Leschenko was absolutely thrilling. Leschenko’s pianism is startlingly good and the close musical connection she shares with the ACO, and especially its musical director Richard Tognetti, led to a masterclass in performance.

The concert opened with the Concerto for Violin and Piano in D minor by Felix Mendelssohn, a work they’ve played together before, both live and on recordings. This is an astonishingly audacious work, full of the confidence and vigour of a brilliant young composer – it’s quite incredible that he was just 14 years old when he composed this ambitious concerto. There may be hints of all the greats – Bach, Mozart, Haydn – but young Mendelssohn still made a sound that was all his own. Tognetti and Leschenko each shone in their solo passages, but the passion really ignited as the two instruments duelled for the musical and emotional spotlight. The 15 players of the ACO were on point throughout, sharing the intensity and playing with superb precision.

During interval, the stage hands rearranged the music stands and moved the piano to the back of the stage, a foretelling of what was to come. Helena Rathbone, principal violin and a much loved member of the ACO since 1994, came on stage to explain. ‘As you can see, there’s no piano…’ she began. ‘It’s behind you!’ replied a wag in the stalls.

But, yes, sadly Leschenko had withdrawn from the concert due to an unspecified ailment, as had happened a couple of nights earlier in Melbourne. The ACO had sent an email to ticket holders on the afternoon of the performance saying this may happen, but even as late as the pre-concert talk it still had not been decided. 

And so the second half began with Vaughan Williams’ beautiful musical setting of The Lark Ascending, a poem by English writer George Meredith. Much as it was disappointing to not hear Leschenko playing Chopin, this was an admirable substitute. Again the members of the ACO showed their faultless timing and intense musical synergy as The Lark soared through the auditorium.

And then it was the other Mendelssohn and the String Quartet in E Flat Minor by Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, older sister to Felix. She was an accomplished composer, but somewhat overlooked in favour of her brother, thanks to the time and her gender. 

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Arranged here for a full string orchestra, the Quartet sounded fresh and bright and full of life. Each of the four movements has its own distinct character, and while all are appealing, it’s the dashing finale that really sets the heart racing.

Chopin and the Mendelssohns, even without the Chopin, was a superb recital. Every moment of the thunderous applause was well-deserved. Bravo indeed ACO!

Chopin and the Mendelssohns was performed from 9-22 November 2023 at the Adelaide Town Hall.

Dr Diana Carroll is a writer, speaker, and reviewer based in Adelaide. Her work has been published in newspapers and magazines including the Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian, Woman's Day, and B&T. Writing about the arts is one of her great passions.