It was billed as “Beethoven’s Trio” but the trio the audience at the Omega Ensemble’s season opener got was not the one they were expecting. Instead of the ‘Gassenhauer’, David Rowden, Clemens Leske and Paul Stender gave us the Op. 38 arrangement for clarinet, piano and cello that Beethoven himself made of his Op. 20 Septet. And no one had reason to feel short-changed either with six movements – many of them Beethoven at his catchiest – instead of three, even though we didn’t get the final “tune they whistle in alleyways” that gave the ‘Gassenhauer’ trio its nickname.

Omega Ensemble, Beethoven's Trio, Clemens LeskeClemens Leske. Photo © Keith Saunders

It was the curtain closer on a varied and highly enjoyable launch of Omega’s intimate Master Series in Sydney Opera House’s Utzon Room. Rowden described the three works on the program as ground-breaking – a piano trio arrangement of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, in which the enfant terrible is bidding a fond farewell to Wagner while making tentative moves towards a new harmonic sound world, and Mendelssohn’s First Piano Trio, which forms the perfect bridge between the trios of Beethoven and Schubert and the late romantics who take up the mantle.

I confess I was trepidatious about hearing a piano trio reworking of Transfigured Night – my ear being more accustomed to the string sextet original, not to mention the sumptuously rich and romantic full orchestral renditions. But Eduardo Steuermann, a pupil of Schoenberg’s who premiered his Piano Concerto, struck gold with his 1932 reimagining, solely because his piano arrangement is so superbly realised. Like all good arrangements it stands alone as well as offering us insights into the more familiar original.

Leske handled the task superbly, driving the five movements, while violinist Anna Da Silva Chen and Stender’s cello shared the voices of the man and the woman, pregnant by another man, at the heart of Richard Dehmel’s symbolist poem which inspired the piece. The strings were perhaps a little less impressive than Leske in this performance – impassioned and powerful in the more turbulent passages but a little tentative and with occasional minor tuning lapses in the quieter moments.

No such problems with the next work, Mendelssohn’s piano trio Op. 49: four dazzling movements celebrating the newly advanced concert grands which were being built in 1839, and the influence of Liszt and Chopin were having on public performance. Each of its four movements is a perfect jewel in its own right. The opening Molto allegro agitato exploits the full added length of the keyboard with scintillating arpeggios and sweeping melodic lines – echoed joyously by the strings – which remind the listener of the Songs Without Words sets. Next a gorgeous Andante, its lovely melody given out first by the piano before being taken up passionately by Chen and Stender. Then the trademark irresistible fleet footed Mendelssohn Scherzo leading into a folksy, dance-like finale that prefigures both Dvořák’s furiants and Brahms in full Hungarian Gypsy mode. All brilliantly done.

To finish, artistic co-director Rowden was in cracking form with Leske and Stender performing some of Beethoven’s most attractive and light-hearted chamber music. Next Omega launches its Virtuoso Series with an all-Mozart program at City Recital Hall.


The Omega Ensemble performs Grand Mozart at City Recital Hall on April 9

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