Utzon Room, Sydney Opera House: 8 July, 2012
Spohr – Octet in E major, op. 32
Beethoven – Sextet in E flat, op. 81b
Tchaikovsky – String Sextet in D minor ‘Souvenir de Florence’ op. 70
The Sydney Omega Ensemble
Emily Long – violin
Katie Betts – violin
Stuart Johnson – viola
Jacqui Cronin – viola
Rowena Macneish – cello
Timothy Nankervis – cello
Euan Harvey – horn
Rachel Silver – horn
David Rowen – clarinet
Ben Ward – double bass
Stepping down a semitone at a time starting from Spohr’s E Major, seeming to gravitate to the famous Tchaikovsky sextet in D Minor, this group of young musicians brings quite an ambitious program. Despite some uneven playing of the first piece, they became stronger and stronger to give a very satisfying take on the last.
Spohr’s Octet in E in itself taxes the acoustic of the room — one felt one could not get far enough back from the musicians to hear them properly. It is very appealing music, with a very clear rhythmic structure, perhaps not so much a dialog between the strings and winds as a declamatory early romantic piece for a large chamber ensemble. The Omega Ensemble had a jazz-like approach to the music, becoming a kind of big band, with a big sound, somewhat unusual for the usually smaller, clearer, more carefully articulating approach of the group, though this approach was not without character. Their timing could be smudgy, though, especially in the first movement and the instrumental colors never found any sort of equilibrium, the rather heavy, penetrating double bass and very sharp horns fighting the more refined violas and the bright but very expressive violin of Katie Betts. In the shallow room where they were playing, the lightest possible touch would be needed on the bass strings and thick muting of the brass to pull off this octet with clarity. There was enthusiasm to their playing and they did show in the quieter places and in the solo playing a good sense of phrasing of Spohr’s melodies, so probably rehearsal time was a bit tight between the technically difficult Beethoven and the expansive Tchaikovsky sextet.
Beethoven’s sextet in E flat, which shares an opus number and other qualities with the later piano sonata number 26 (opus 81a) titled “Das Lebewohl, Abwesenheit und Wiedersehn,” is youthful in spirit but does show much wisdom as Beethoven necessarily brings to nearly all his music and is one of those interesting pieces in between the classical and romantic periods and styles, where unjustly an artificial wall is sometimes stuck. Essentially a string quartet playing with a pair of horns, the vivid dialog Beethoven writes between the horns and the string quartet here is not forgetful of the Baroque which brought the horn indoors to the concert hall as a soloist. The modern, or rather late romantic french horns here still sounded in a way like outdoor instruments but Euan Harvey and Rachel Silver played less forcefully here than in the Spohr. The group did have a strong idea of the dialog in the piece; their playing was lucid, clean and more confident. The string quartet half of the group was still fairly well balanced with the brass under first violin Emily Long’s leading style and beautiful playing, the other strings refined and delicate. This suited well the much more confident playing of the much harder horn parts in this piece. With only a couple of missed notes, they played the quick falling notes of the returning theme of the first movement movement and the allegro rondo of the last which demand so much finesse of embouchure, and their timing together was sharp. The conversational playing had character, the strident horns, especially penetrating in the dissonant parts of the second movement, with the less straight-edged string quartet part softer, though capable of its own sharpness, disagreeing to differ in an appealing way.
Tchaikovsky’s sextet “Souvenirs de Florence,” his last chamber piece written in 1890, showed some very refined playing and confidence in the old sense of the word. With the piece exploring all different kinds of allego, except for the second movement’s adagio, which is itself “con moto,” the group launched into it with great energy, like a runaway troika. Their very clear and textured sound gave a sunny quality even as the piece’s harmonic mood and tempo shifted. Very lively in their playing of the very lively music with the “con spirito” of the first movement, the second’s “cantabile” and the fourth’s “con brio e vivace,” the third movement “allegro moderato” stands out with the only movement showing moderation. Their style of playing was still very extroverted here in the third movement and it benefited from the contrast. Otherwise, Tchaikovsky’s extremely danceable music was played with enough finesse to bring Frederic Ashton’s art to mind. Here and there the strongly outlined playing could bring out some of the catchier melodies too strongly, for example the syncopated main theme of the third movement, which is repeated many times, was a little too heavily phrased especially by the time it got to Timothy Nankervis’ cello. Emily Long has a talent for bringing expression to repeated themes, which Tchaikovsky uses quite often in his music (and I’m not convinced it’s just out of laziness or pleased-with-himselfness) so as to give them meaning beyond a compositional device or element of the music’s structure.