The Utzon Room with its sweeping harbour views behind the stage is always a favourite venue for its dreamy atmosphere. Having the Omega Ensemble present this delightful program here was a treat.
Debussy: String Quartet in G minor
The performers went for an etherial rather than warm sensuous tone for much of the first movement; Natsuko Yoshimoto’s sound on the higher sections of the first violin part tended to be bright giving the ecstatic phases added brilliance. The tight rhythmic impetus had anything but a dreamy effect, sweeping the listener along. The second movement with its lilting pizzicato opening, maintained a good balance between the instruments as the melody was passed from part to part. I was impressed by the rhythmic precision at cadential ritenutos; the performance was obviously very well rehearsed.
At the beginning of the third movement a phone went off in the audience and the performance had to be halted. The natural annoyance this produced was diffused by the second violinist, Ike See, who jokingly (and impressively) imitated the complex ringtone. This reminds me of another bugbear I have at concerts, people getting up and giving speeches before the music starts. The music should stand on its own, you do not want the music diluted by unnecessary talk. When the movement was restarted, someone proceeded to unwrap a cough lolly, and painfully slowly during the quiet section.
The slow movement with its languid melodies and beautiful harmonies was played with a full range of emotions from the contemplative to the ecstatic. The final movement which is probably the most contrapuntal, was played with warmth and strength.
I loved hearing this piece in live performance.
Hoadley: Clarinet Quintet “Broken Songs” (world premiere)
This work was commissioned from Ben Hoadley especially for the Omega Ensemble, and specifically to complement the Mozart Quintet with the same instrumentation. A feature of this performance is the use of the basset clarinet with a range an extra 3 notes lower than the standard clarinet in A, The four movements of Hoadley’s piece are only nine minutes long and most are based on English folksong-like melodies. He spoke briefly before the performance; I didn’t mind this as the focus was entirely on the music and how the composition was influence by the unusual tonal characteristics of the basset clarinet. The piece was interesting with unusual techniques like very high, seemingly random pizzicato against dark melancholic melodies on the clarinet.
Haydn: Quartet 53 in D “The Lark”
This is one of the most famous of Haydn’s many quartets. Omega played this with imaginative and well executed articulation. In the first movement for example, the tenuto syncopated chords were totally together and every nuance carefully balanced. The second movement, a kind of aria, was sensitively played with great delicacy. This was especially so during the very high filato violin passage against the second violin and viola low in the range and also in the fluidity of the cadenza.
The whole performance was masterful. They were utterly together rhythmically and dynamically even in the contrasting passages in the final movement. I could not fault the performance.
Mozart: Clarinet Quintet in A
There are some musical works which stand apart. This is one such work; it is a great work but not in a grandiose way; it seems to exude humility and joy in life. While the clarinet is clearly a “feature” of this work, it is not treated as a solo instrument with a string quartet backing. It is very much an ensemble piece. Needles to say, it is often performed and recorded, but it is always a delight to hear it. Its crystalline structure is pure perfection.
Hearing it on the basset clarinet (for which it was written) added a new element for modern ears. The warmth of the lower register was significantly enhanced. David Rowden who is the musical director of the ensemble, played with exquisite phrasing and liquid legato lines eliciting similar responses from the strings. There was great restraint at the pianissimo opening of the slow movement and when the main theme returned at the end it was impossibly even quieter still. I am awestruck how Rowden maintained the tone at such a whisper. What control! Here the first violin produced warm tone too even in the high notes.
I had a strong urge to dance during the Minuet; a good sign of vibrant performance. The Trio in the minor key made me want to weep; quite the emotional roller coaster. This continued in the final Variations movement too; the heart-wrenching sobbing of the Viola and then the return of the clarinet is like the sun bursting through.
It is hard to imagine a better performance of the Haydn and Mozart pieces in a more beautiful venue. This concert was indeed a treat.