From fine period performances – with some rarities to boot – to evocations of nature, Angus McPherson looks at concerts by the Academy of Ancient Music, Ensemble Offspring, and the West Australian Symphony Orchestra that are the perfect cure for the isolation blues.

Mozart's Clarinet Concerto
Michael Collins, Mozart's Clarinet Concerto, MSO, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra
Michael Collins. Photo © Benjamin Ealovega

Available from May 24

The Academy of Ancient Music’s online offerings have brought forth a wealth of treasures (see Clive Paget’s In Your Living Room column for some opera highlights) but Michael Collins’ performance with the period instrument band of Mozart’s gorgeous Clarinet Concerto will certainly be one to catch. Collins has made several appearances in Australia in recent years, giving a particularly revealing interview with Clive Paget in 2017, and in 2019 performing Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.

In this recording from 2018 with the Academy of Ancient Music, however, Collins was on the podium – the conductor/clarinettist stepping aside from the soloist’s spotlight for health reasons – with Nicola Boud performing the solo on basset clarinet, the instrument for which Mozart wrote the work originally.

“Collins has performed the work innumerable times, therefore he was the ideal conductor to partner Boud and their close rapport was clearly evident,” wrote Antony Hodgson in a review for Classical Source. “In general this was a swifter performance than is usually heard and it suited Boud’s lyrical style. Her view of the music involved a certain amount of legato phrasing and firm forward progress. This was a fluent, sensitive and ultimately exciting performance of this great masterpiece, so firmly structured that it gave the work a symphonic nature.”

Alongside the Concerto, Collins conducted music by Mozart and Salieri, and the rarely heard Overture to the 1776 opera Erwin und Elmire by the Duchess Anna Amalia of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel. Soprano Soraya Mafi also joins the orchestra for a selection of Mozart arias. “This was a perfectly balanced concert,” wrote Sam Smith for Music OMH, “in which Mozart formed the backbone to the evening but attention was also paid to some lesser-known pieces.” Come for the Mozart, stay for the rarer performances of music by Salieri and Amalia.

Birdsong at Dusk
Lamorna Nightingale, Claire Edwardes and Jason Noble

May 27 at 8:30pm AEST

Created in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and its devastating effect on the incomes of Australian musicians, Melbourne Digital Concert Hall – which sells tickets to one-off live streamed concert events – has been going from strength to strength. The project has already raised over $100,000 for artists, and has now gone national, with Satellite Concerts beamed in from across the country. One such Satellite Concert is a performance by Sydney’s innovative new music group Ensemble Offspring on May 27, which will turn your living room into a musical aviary.

The group’s Artistic Director and percussionist Claire Edwardes will be joined by Jason Noble on clarinets and Lamorna Nightingale on flutes for a program of recently composed music by Australian composers, of works from the Birdsong at Dusk program the ensemble performed at a sold-out concert in January before later tour dates (celebrating EO’s 25th birthday, no less) were cancelled due to the pandemic.

The concert will open with the cheery burbling of Fiona Loader’s 2015 trio Lorikeet Corroboree, while Edwardes’ own compositional contribution –Screechers and Sorrows from 2019 – divides the world of birdcalls into two distinct sonic categories, before the haunting, gradually shifting textures of Kate Moore’s 2018 Blackbird Song evoke a more meditative mood. Noble will take the stage for Felicity Wilcox’s 2016 bass clarinet solo People of this Place – dedicated to the Gadigal people of the Eora nation, as traditional owners of the land that inspired the work, before Hollis Taylor and Jon Rose’s Bitter Springs Creek melds a field recording of birdsong made at Bitter Springs Creek, along the road from Alice Springs, with glittering instrumental transcriptions of the birds’ calls. The eerie tranquillity of the Flamingo movement is a highlight of Gerard Brophy’s 2019 Beautiful Birds, which brings the program to a close.

Asher Fisch scales the Bavarian Alps
Asher Fisch

Available now on ABC iView

Evocations of nature are a recurring theme in classical music – see the popularity of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons or Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony – and another such highlight this week is the West Australian Symphony Orchestra’s 2018 performance of Richard Strauss’s 1915 tone poem Eine Alpensinfonie under the baton of Chief Conductor Asher Fisch, available now on ABC iView. In essence, the work is simple: a hiker climbs up a mountain in Bavaria and then comes back down again. “It’s a simple idea but it gives him a canvas to be – and I say this in a positive way – very eclectic,” Fisch told Limelight ahead of this performance.

Indeed, it’s an incredibly colourful, pictorial work – and a perfect chance for those stuck at home to transport themselves to more exciting vistas. “The orchestration is huge and it’s also lots of fun,” Fisch said. “Strauss didn’t use the Wagner tubas a lot, so this is a little bit unusual for him, and it’s nice to see a big part for the organ. And then the wind machine is phenomenal – if you can hear it – because it’s really hard to make it work. The cowbells are an homage to Mahler, of course.”

“When the strings play the dropping interval tune at the summit, it’s visceral,” he says. “It’s so much about the physical involvement of playing and I don’t shy away from the moment we slide down on the strings. I like it as luscious as it can be. Why not? There’s no point in saying we’re playing clean strings here. The waterfall is absolute genius (even though it sounds a little bit like Liszt’s Villa d’Este), and I love the image of the guy – or Strauss himself – running down from the storm where he meets all the musical motifs he’s heard when he was climbing up.”

When Clive Paget heard Fisch conduct Eine Alpensinfonie with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra the year before, he wrote: “Fisch may be thought of in Australia as WASO’s secret weapon, but he’s also a go-to in this repertoire from New York to Vienna and his Strauss here bore favourable comparison with Kempe or Karajan. In short, if you’ve ever thought Eine Alpensinfonie is nothing more than flash and fluff, prepare to hear it elevated to the level of a Bruckner or Mahler symphony.”

Give this a listen if you find yourself missing the great outdoors.