Review: Brahms and the Clarinet (Omega Ensemble)

Review: Brahms and the Clarinet (Omega Ensemble)

By Steve Moffatt, 30 May 2016, Limelight Magazine

By the age of 58 Johannes Brahms was ready to transition to retirement and smell the roses – until he made one of his regular trips to the small court orchestra in Meiningen, Germany, to hear clarinetist Richard Mühlfeld. He was so taken by Mühlfeld’s playing and mastery of the instrument that he wrote four more works for the instrument – two sonatas, a quintet and the Opus 114 Trio for Clarinet, Cello and Piano in A Minor. Much of Brahms’ late works have an autumnal feel so this was the perfect music for Omega Ensemble’s latest concert in the Utzon Room of Sydney Opera House with its picture-perfect views of the Harbour on a bright and cool Sunday afternoon. The ensemble for this recital comprised Artistic Director and clarinettist David Rowden, his wife Maria Raspopova on piano and Omega’s new cellist, Paul Stender, a regular with the Australian Chamber Orchestra, Sydney Symphony and Australian Opera and Ballet outfits. In a programme featuring “the three Bs”, the afternoon got under way with Stender’s poetic and excellent reading of JS Bach’s First Cello Suite. After graduating from the Canberra School of Music, Stender studied in Austria under Vienna Philharmonic Principal Cellist Wolfgang Herzer and worked as a freelance around Europe. He returned to Australia in 2009. Next up was Beethoven’s Trio in B Flat Major, Op. 11 Gassenhauer, more familiar in its configuration of violin, cello and piano but which the composer intended for either instrument. The clarinet gives the work a sunnier, perkier aspect and Rowden's lovely, rounded and smooth tone was shown to advantage in the adagio middle movement. Raspopova allowed just the right amount of Haydn’s influence to infuse the opening movement. The finale, with its variations on a popular “street tune” which gives the work its nickname, is a showcase for the three instrumentalists with an irreverent piano solo then a duet for clarinet and cello, all carried off with aplomb. Before the Brahms took out the second half a fourth “B” appeared on the programme in the guise of Omega’s bassoonist Ben Hoadley, who is also an accomplished composer with his works performed both here and in his native New Zealand. It was the fact that he spends so much time travelling between both countries that inspired his Four Preludes for clarinet, cello and piano, which was commissioned for the Omega as a “taster” for the other works on the programme. Hoadley says that often when he first awakes he is unsure of which country he is in – until he hears the bird calls. This delightful, tonal set of miniatures features the call of the grey butcher bird in the first and fourth movements, and one presumes the two inner movements – the second slow and majestic with a good cello tune (originally for bassoon) and the third a warm-hearted duet between clarinet and cello over a lilting waltz-time piano accompaniment – to have been inspired by his native land. The Brahms, of course, was the main fare of the afternoon and the Ensemble combined tightly and impressively throughout its four movements. Perhaps the best description of this work is contained in Eusebius Mandyczewski's letter to Brahms: “It’s as though the instruments were in love with each other.” That feeling certainly came across in this performance. As a charming little stocking filler, Rowden, Raspopova and Stender, who are all parents of children under three, asked Hoadley to make a trio arrangement of Brahms’ Lullaby. An enchanting end to a lovely afternoon’s music.