by Jennifer Foong
Sparkling Sydney Harbour on a beautiful Spring afternoon was a most appropriate backdrop for the intimate surrounds of the Utzon Room at the Opera House where a stunning recital was given by clarinettist, David Rowden, Artistic Director and Founder of the Omega Ensemble, and pianist, and Maria Raspopova, resident pianist of the Ensemble.
The concert was a lovely balance of well-known works and lesser-known ones, typical of the approach of the Omega Ensemble to programming.
Proceedings commenced with Brahms’ famous Clarinet Sonata in E-flat Op 120 No 2. The sublime lyrical opening by the clarinet was complemented by the expressive touch of Raspopova, each instrument immediately providing clean clear lines. Varied repetition of the first subject followed by its development led to a harmonically and rhythmically enjoyable coda with clarinet troplets over piano duplets. The second of the three movements was unusual for Brahms in that it is scherzo-like with a Trio. Well-controlled contrasts in dynamics and tempo by each player and during their interplay were evident. The last movement Andante con moto with variations was also unusual for a “classical” Brahms work. However, the agility and breath control of Rowden, already on display in the faster passages of the Andante beginning, was highlighted in the more usual Allegro tempo finale in the latter part of the movement.
A most satisfying delicate balance between the instruments was maintained throughout this piece. It displayed the clarinet’s incisive high register as well as its warm resonant lower tones.
We were then treated to the first of two piano solo works played by Raspopova, heralded by the complete opening of the Steinway grand piano lid which was only partially open for the duo works. She introduced Felix Mendelssohn’s Rondo Capriccioso as “very happy and light…like today!” This tall stylish pianist certainly showed off her great technique, judicious use of the pedal, particularly during the louder fast passages, and overall musicality.
Next up, Rowden rejoined Raspopova to perform a new discovery, a piece that Raspopova had played with another clarinettist, Dmitri Ashkenazy, during a recent tour. Fantasiestuecke by Danish composer, Niels Gade, was a substantial Romantic offering. By this time in the mid-afternoon just before Interval, I was totally relaxed and in the mood for the graceful tranquillity of the first movement Andantino con moto, ready for a reverie, only for it to be disturbed by a jetboat outside whizzing by! The second movement Allegro vivace and third movement Ballade provided plenty of contrast and interplay while the final movement Allegro molto vivace was very playful.
After Interval, Raspopova played Liszt’s Tarantella, the third in a collection of musical sketches from Venezia e Napoli, composed during his travels to Italy, a work that further highlighted the pianist’s formidable technique. She introduced the work as “serious fun” which was a delightful way of describing a work so typical of Liszt with notes all over the keyboard and with huge dynamic changes throughout. She certainly captured the rhythms of the Italian dance very well.
Another “find” was the final work by Poulenc, his Sonata for Clarinet and Piano in B-flat. It was a work dedicated to clarinettist Benny Goodman, famous as the King of Swing, and to be first performed by him and the composer at the piano. However, when Poulenc suffered a heart attack two weeks prior to the premiere, Leonard Bernstein replaced him as the pianist.
A moving calm beginning was soon replaced by an energetic end to the first movement where impressive changes in dynamics, tempo, and mood were all evident. The second movement Romanza featured serene slow passages. The final movement Allegro con fuoco (Tres anime) was a brilliant way to finish my first ever Omega Ensemble concert, one that made a most favourable impression.
Anecdotes provided by both performers during the concert revealed a wonderful insight into their personalities and leads to an increased understanding of the music which I find only adds to the overall enjoyment.
Rowden and Raspopova provided the icing on the cake with an encore, the first movement from the Sonatina for clarinet and piano by Joseph Horovitz, born in Vienna in 1926, later studying in London and Paris. It was a reflective piece, as its Allegro calmato suggested, very suitable for a “warm down” after such an invigorating and demanding program. Most interestingly, Raspopova revealed it was introduced to them by a couple who were in the audience!