★★★★☆ An attractive concert of chamber favourites kicks off Omega's year.
If at times it seems hard to pin down Sydney-based chamber group Omega Ensemble, in many ways that is a good thing. With programming and line-up two of their strengths, their concerts seldom disappoint, and this, the first of their 2017 season, was no exception. Perhaps Debussy, Haydn and Mozart don’t make for the riskiest bill of fare (and perhaps the second half should have come first), but when the playing is as fine as this it hardly seems to matter.
Debussy’s String Quartet was the opener and received a very fine reading indeed, tight of ensemble and with plenty of fire in its belly. No temptation here to wallow in any wishy-washy impressionism. Adelaide Symphony Orchestra concertmaster Natsuko Yoshimoto and the ACO’s Ike See on violins made a finely blended top half, perfectly balanced against Neil Thompson on viola and Paul Stender on cello, both of whom are Australian Opera Orchestra regulars (among others).
They may not be an ‘official’ quartet, but most have worked together before and it showed, particularly in the dramatic chords of the opening and the spirited pizzicati, which made for a zinger of a second movement. Despite the mobile phone – which one quick-thinking player picked up and riffed on – and a nasty bout of sweet rustling, the players arrived at the emotional heart of the piece delivering an Andantino of gentle power and with especially touching viola solos.
Omega regular bassoonist Ben Hoadley also happens to be one of New Zealand’s most up-and-coming composers. His Clarinet Quintet (Broken Songs) was written to shadow the Mozart Quintet, and like that masterwork to employ the rich lower tones of the basset clarinet. Omega AD David Rowden joined the string players in this brief nine-minute work that riffs on themes reminiscent of British folk tunes. Tinkling pizzicati behind the bridge and pungent string chords launched lyrical clarinet themes before a shanty-like tune emerged over shimmering Debussy-like chords. Rowden is a deft hand on the basset clarinet, his lower register attractively and seamlessly connected to the rest of the instrument. A cheeky scherzo and a dramatic narrative exploiting the full range of the basset passed muster before the shanty returned to close the work.
The second half opened with The Lark, one of Haydn’s sunniest and best known string quartets (it’s Op. 64, No 5). Like the Debussy, the sense of togetherness was paramount and paid dividends in the Adagio cantabile second movement where a lovely intensity supported a radiant solo line from Yoshimoto. Elsewhere, the opening movement might have had a bit more fun and spirit about it, though they did warm into it. The feisty Menuetto led into the Finale where the scurrying hornpipe was nicely contrasted with the more formal development sections. No cavils with the Mozart Clarinet Quintet that rounded off the afternoon. It’s the centrepiece of the ensemble’s fine debut CD on ABC Classics and here received a reading bursting with Classical elegance which felt, as it should, like a conversation between five good friends. The four string players built up a sweetly homogenised river of sound into and out of which Rowden’s buttery clarinet tone could dip and surface at will. His nicely shaped phrases with their beautifully tapered ends wove a real sense of magic, enhanced by that lovely lower register. The second movement Larghetto again proved the heart of the matter, Rowden caressing the delicate melody over Yoshimoto’s winningly spun violin figurations. Grace abounded too in the Theme and Variations finale, Rowden plunging down delicately to bring up those special bottom notes. Again, an impeccable sense of balance made this a fine conclusion to an attractive concert of chamber favourites.