Review: Beethoven's Genius

BY SAMUEL COTTELL

The waves crashed against the shoreline, people hustled and bustled as they engaged in their Sunday activities and a red tour train had broken down near the Royal Botanic Gardens. No, I wasn’t having a picnic in the sun, I was sitting in the Utzon Room at the Sydney Opera House ready for the Omega Ensemble performance. The glorious surrounds of Sydney Harbour and foreshore provided the perfect aesthetic for an afternoon of chamber music.

First on the program was Ferdinand Thieriot’s Octet in B flat major. Who, you ask? Do a quick search for Ferdinand Thieriot and you will soon find, as I did, that there is hardly anything written about the composer or his music, aside from the most obvious sources, and there isn’t a Grove dictionary entry on him. A good friend of Brahms (they both learnt from the same teacher), each composer went in very different directions. Thus, the compositions of Thieriot have mostly been lost to obscurity. In fact, after the war, many of his manuscripts were missing, and they were not returned to Leningrad until 1989; the first works of his were not even published until 1991, so it is little wonder that he has not been heard of by most.

Thieriot’s Octet (one of the two that he composed) is a charming work that sits within the late Romantic tradition (if Thieriot had been born a few hundred years ago, I daresay he would have had much success as a Hollywood film composer in the 1940s). While the musical ideas themselves were somewhat dubious (Thieriot seems to have been hinting at some ideas of something new, but never quite succeeds with his harmonic or phrasing ideas), the way in which the instruments are orchestrated demonstrates a composer who understands the intricate writing need for such an ensemble, displaying craft of orchestration. In this sense, it was the perfect piece to demonstrate the skills of the close knit chamber group as well as to demonstrate the individual voices within the octet. The rendering of this work by the Omega Ensemble was nothing less than superb. The highlight of Thieriot’s Octet in Bb major was the Adagio movement, in which each member of the ensemble is assigned a solo, passing the thematic material around the ensemble. In this sense, each player demonstrated their ability to work as a soloist and supporting artist.

Michael Dixon’s French horn playing blended wonderfully with the bassoon and clarinet. Ben Hoadley’s bassoon playing was lyrical and rich, and at times added a punch to the inner voices. The string section were in fine form, and the cello, played Teije Hylkema and double bass, performed by Alex Henery provided rich textural support in the form of moving upper and lower bass parts. Their sound was rich and full and was exciting to hear. The ensemble, led by David Rowden, whose clarinet tone was lyrical, bright and clear, particular in the Adagio movement, navigated the five movements of Thieriot’s octet with zest and excitement.

Beethoven, on the other hand, is perhaps the most widely known and recognised composer of all time (alongside Mozart of course), and his late string quartets are some of the pinnacles and indeed, miracles of music ever to be created. By the time Beethoven composed these quartets he was completely deaf. He had received a commission to write them for whatever fee he thought fair. Beethoven requested 50 ducats. At the heart of this quartet is the third movement, which Beethoven labelled ‘A Convalescent’s Holy Song of Thanksgiving to the Deity, in the Lydian mode’. Within this movement the quartet performed in a deep and introspective manner drawing the listeners into a moment of suspended time.

The strength of this quartet was in the ensemble playing, led by Teije Hylkema. At the very core of this quartet is the voice of the cello. Hylkema took the piece to new heights and played each note with tender and careful care as though each note was the most delicate thing in the world. Amanda Verner’s deep and coloured tone on the viola complimented the focus of the cello and added another depth to the dimension of the sound, and the blend of the four players resulted in a passionate performance.

Here was a program that demonstrates the Omega Ensemble’s knack for crackerjack programming. By pairing one of the most glorious chamber pieces in the history of music (in the form of Beethoven’s last string quartets) alongside a work by a composer who most would not have heard of, the Omega Ensemble again demonstrate why they are Sydney’s rock stars of chamber music.