Omega Ensemble’s debut recording on ABC Classics is interesting and polished

Omega Ensemble’s debut recording on ABC Classics is interesting and polished

Sydney’s own chamber group, the Omega Ensemble, founded in 2005 by clarinetist David Rowden, have just released their first album and what an interesting polished album it is. It contains an eclectic mix of three works, the famous and much-loved Clarinet Quintet of Mozart together with two contemporary pieces composed by fellow Australians, Ian Munro and George Palmer.

WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART Clarinet Quintet in A major, KV581

Being a fan of historically-informed performance practice on period instruments, I was delighted to hear Rowden play the basset clarinet which was the instrument Mozart originally intended for the solo part. The basset clarinet displays its mellow lyrical expression most of all in the second movement Larghetto. Rowden is ably supported by the strings throughout the piece with marvellous interplay in particular between the string quartet and basset clarinet in the first movement Allegro. Rowden’s virtuosic playing is most evident in the fourth of five variations in the final movement Allegretto con variazioni.

IAN MUNRO Songs from the Bush – Clarinet Quintet

Songs of the Bush is a Clarinet Quintet composed by Munro in 2009. It consists of three movements and involves a standard string quartet of two violins, viola, and cello, combined with Rowden on clarinet. Munro “was inspired by folk melodies from both sides of the Australian colonial frontier“.

The first movement “Country Dance” was sourced from John Meredith’s Folk Songs of Australia, a collection of folk tunes from NSW in the 1950s-60s. The most striking feature of the Country Dance is the central Irish jig. The second movement “Campfire and Night Sky” reflected the atmosphere of tired drovers around a late-night campfire recounting tales and sharing songs before bedtime. The melody in the final movement “Drover’s Lament” was developed from an indigenous children’s song that sounds very much like “Sixteen Thousand Miles”, thus providing a link between our two cultures.

GEORGE PALMER It Takes Two – Concerto for Two Clarinets

The find of the CD was the Concerto for Two Clarinets “It Takes Two” by George Palmer, a former Supreme Court Judge of NSW who studied piano and composed in his youth. It was a breath of fresh air to hear a contemporary work with more than a hint of melody. It was composed in 2008 for two clarinets and a chamber group comprising two violins, viola, cello, double bass, flute, oboe, bassoon, and horn. The two soloists in this recording, Rowden and Dimitri Ashkenazy, premiered the work with the Omega Ensenmble in November 2008.

The first movement Adagio – Allegro con spirito was a musical conversation between the two clarinets, initially relaxed but building to lively banter with one trying to outdo the other. The second movement Lento arioso reflects a pensive longing mood like “two people in love…separated by distance and circumstance“. The two clarinets come closer harmonically as their lives merge “with growing and transcending joy” towards the end of the movement. The third and final movement Molto vivace is certainly jaunty and full of dance energy, from fast to slower and more passionate to a very fast conclusion. It reminded me of Palmer’s Ruritananian Dances for chamber ensemble from his own first album in 2004 called The Attraction of Opposites : The Music of George Palmer.

Omega Ensemble are to be commended for their first CD, one that includes two world-class clarinetists in Rowden and Ashkenazy and contains an intriguing mix of old and new works.

Review by Jennifer Foong for ClassikON.