Review: Four Last Songs

Review: Four Last Songs

by Samuel Cottell, 24 April 2016, Cut Common

There is probably no way to prepare yourself for a concert that includes Wagner, Mahler, Strauss and a world premiere by one of Australia’s best loved music journalists, radio host and composer Andrew Ford. A program that begins with Wagner’s Vorspiel und Liebstod and concludes with Strauss’ Last Four Songs was always going be an emotional roller-coaster.

The concert began with Wagner’s Vorspiel und Liebstod from the epic opera that changed the course of Western music and tonal thinking, Tristan und Isolde. Beginning with solo cello and slowly unfolding throughout the chamber orchestration of this work, this arrangement for smaller forces (in comparison to Wagner’s generally very large orchestral forces) allowed the intricate musical lines to unfold from singular instruments and gave the audience a micro-glimpse of the nuance within each note of the chord, each phrase and how it all fit together. Omega rendered the work with clarity, grace and introspective thought which highlighted the entry of Lee Abrahmsen even more. Her first notes tenderly rolled out over the audience and a cascade of well-rounded phrases and highly emotional expression ensued.

Applauds ruptured when the Wagner concluded. Andrew Ford soon appeared onstage to talk about his love of folk music and how he has created a somewhat ‘martian’ folk music in his world premiere piece Contradance (he also admitted that Wagner was a hard act to follow, and the longer her talked about his work, the more distance he was putting between himself and Wagner). Ford’s sense of humour and wit set the tone for what was about to come, and provided a delightful segue to Contradance.

Contradance explored the lower registers of the ensemble, with Ben Hoadley’s rumbling contrabassoon coupled with David Rowden’s bass clarinet and Alex Henery’s double bass. Ford juxtaposed the highs of the ensemble with the lows, pitting extreme registers of pitch with overlapping dance patterns and rhythms. This ensemble was led by violinist Ike See, who brilliantly directed the ensemble through the difficult work. This was a stand-out delivery from a difficult work and demonstrated Omega’s ability at navigating the most difficult and tricky musical passages, while at the same time making them seem the easiest thing in the world.

To open the second half of the program was Mahler’s early work – the Piano Quartet in A minor. Composed when Mahler was still a student, there has been some ambiguity regarding this music and it was wonderful to see it rendered so wonderfully in this concert. Maria Raspopova displayed her attention to detail in this work. Her steely fingerwork and crackerjack technique saw her engage with the different registers of the keyboard. She brought out lush chords and served them with a sense of grace and elegance before putting on a dazzling firework display in the more virtuosic passages. This quartet is a fully integrated work and relies on the detailed interplay between all of the musicians. Here, Ike See and violist and cellist Teije Hylkema wove in and out of the the piano chords and provided elegant rendering of melodic line (which outlines the counterpoint present in the work). To hear this work performed in Sydney is a rarity and this stunning performance perhaps demonstrated why this work needs to be performed more often.

The concert concluded with the epic masterpiece Four Last Songs by Richard Strauss. Brilliantly arranged by Australian composer James Ledger for chamber orchestra; what seemed like an impossible task of adapting the gargantuan scale that is Strauss’ orchestral writing. Thankfully, Ledger’s arrangement met the challenge and provided rich orchestral pallets that were performed by the members of Omega Ensemble. Lee A’s voice glided over the ensemble, which provided her with complete support at all times. Her register, particularly in the mid-range, was rich and full-bodied with a beautifully rounded tone. There are those who can sing, and then there are those who can SING. Lee A definitely belongs in the latter. Only the combined forces of Lee Abrahmsen and the Omega Ensemble could present such an emotional rendering of Four Last Songs.

Where else in town can you see Wagner, Strauss, Mahler, and Andrew Ford all in one evening performed with complete zest and energy? Omega combined with Lee Abrahmsen to present an evening of emotional music-making that demonstrates again why Omega is at the forefront of Australian chamber music.