When one thinks about Mahler, it’s almost impossible not to think big. Not only was the great Austrian symphonist’s preferred medium orchestral on a titanic scale, but his Alpine inspiration also led Mahler to paint with sound the epic, mountainous vistas of his beloved homeland. Yet there is also great intimacy in Mahler’s music, and perhaps most noticeably in his Symphony No. 4, which spotlights smaller instrumental groupings within the vast orchestral canvass. This aesthetic affinity to chamber music goes someway to explaining the largely uncanny success of the chamber scale arrangement of this work; the centrepiece and highlight of the Omega Ensemble’s latest programme.
The history of this particular incarnation of Mahler’s fourth is strangely knotty. Originally miniaturised at the behest of the father of serialism Arnold Schoenberg, arranged by Erwin Stein in 1921, this version was again revised by Klaus Simon, for an esoteric line-up of 14 players including a skeleton facsimile of the traditional symphony orchestra, plus two percussionists, a pianist, and most unusual of all, a harmonium.
Now in its 10th year, the Omega Ensemble, led by Artistic Director David Rowden, has repeatedly demonstrated a knack for surprising and delighting audiences with savvy programming and superlative delivery, and performing this piece unconducted is no mean feat; a potent demonstration of just how high the calibre of these musicians is. In this scaled down version the music takes on an unusual, but far from unappealing patina, with certain phrases taking on entirely unexpected contours, infused with the individuality and personality so innate in chamber performance.
Richly detailed and expertly realised as this performance was, it was also sadly lacking in some of the monumental power of a Mahlerian orchestra at full-throttle, which made the climaxes in this very familar music feel somewhat underwhelming. Other moments fell foul of some unflattering inelegance in the reorchestration, however this did little to betray the unquestionable skill and technical prowess of the Omega Ensemble’s performers. This stellar quality was especially evident in the final movement of the Mahler, with the addition of the concert’s guest soloist, soprano Lee Abrahmsen. Drafted for the performance with only a few days notice to fill in for New York-based Australian singer Jane Sheldon, Abrahmsen’s delivery showed no hint of nerves or lack in preparation time. With a deliciously full-bodied tone, rich in expression and control, Abrahmsen imbued this lullaby-like song with a gentle, childlike optimism and charming grace.
The use of a soprano soloist was the core thread drawing together this evening of otherwise seemingly unrelated music. Opening the concert was Paul Stanhope’s Shadowland Songs, a setting of three texts by Aboriginal poet Oodgeroo Noonuccal, first performed some 15 years ago. This reflective, meditative and sometimes rhapsodic triptych of songs takes its Aboriginal inspiration and expresses them through a distinctly classically-minded prism. Abrahmsen deftly communicated the mournful, wistful character of the music with a sonorous, sorrowful beauty, but the indigenous roots of the text was partly obscured by Stanhope’s chosen treatment. Against the composer's lush, mellifluous harmonies, firmly anchored in the western classical tradition, these words could be by Rossetti or Keats, but despite the lack of any explicit cultural specificity, this piece is nonetheless powerfully compelling, and as one might expect from the Omega Ensemble, fabulously performed.
Less convincing was the evening’s world premiere, Chamber Symphony, by Mark Isaacs. While this piece was inoffensive, pleasingly scored and unquestionably accessible in its aesthetic, it was essentially a pastiche of a musical language that a century ago would have been considered fairly conservative. Confidently performed by the ensemble who were conducted by the composer, no doubt many in the audience would have enjoyed Isaacs’ piece, and while I applaud the Omega Ensemble for the sentiment of programming a contemporary composition, personally I like my new music with a little more bite.