City Recital Hall, Sydney
April 11, 2018

After a few days of grappling with production deadlines and multiple forms of communication – WhatsApp, LinkedIn, emails and phone calls, you name it – how lovely it was to sit down to the tranquil opening bars of Samuel Barber’s Adagio. All the cares seemed to evaporate and as my shoulders dropped millimetre by millimetre I began to marvel at how such a simple piece of music can weave such a powerful spell. Of course, it’s the sinuous upwards, coiling thrust to that ecstatic top. Then the dying away and resumption. Like Wagner’s Prelude and Liebestod.

The Omega Ensemble based their latest program around three works, under the brand Eternal Quartets, and the first half was given over entirely to the strings of Alexandra Osborne and Airena Nakamura, violins, Neil Thompson, viola, and Paul Stender, cello.

Omega Ensemble, Eternal QuartetsOmega Ensemble: Alexandra Osborne, Airena Nakamura, Neil Thompson and Paul Stender. Photo © David Vagg

Barber’s work was originally composed for quartet before he went on to orchestrate it for Arturo Toscanini. It later turned up as a choral work to the text of Agnus Dei. Heard in its original form it still hits the spot when it builds to that impassioned climax and the Omega players certainly delivered.

The second “eternal” work was Schubert’s Death and the Maiden quartet, recently given the Australian Chamber Orchestra treatment here with Russian guest director Alina Ibragimova. Its passionate opening movement with those striking unison passages are thought by some to represent the maiden’s terror. If that was what Schubert had in mind this reviewer felt the performance of the movement fell a little short – there was maybe too much nuance from Osborne and not enough power and bite in the cello. Entrances and exits occasionally lacked precision.

The hymnal feel of the second movement variations on the original song, however, were captured beautifully, with Nakamura and Thompson reliable and secure in their roles, and there was plenty of momentum in the pendulum-like swing of the scherzo. If the opening movement felt a little mild there was no cause for concern with the tricky finale with its helter-skelter ensemble passages and galloping rhythms. This was first-class playing.

Omega, Eternal QuartetsOmega Ensemble: Alexandra Osborne, Maria Raspopova, Paul Stender and David Rowden. Photo © David Vagg

But the best was reserved for last with a superb performance of one of the most extraordinary 20th-century chamber pieces, Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, which he composed in a prisoner-of-war camp in Germany in 1941. Inspired by a passage from the Book of Revelations and written on paper provided by a sympathetic German guard, it is scored for clarinet, violin, cello and piano. There was no piano when Messiaen started on the eight movements, and the instruments he had at his disposal were dubious at best.

It starts off at dawn with his signature bird calls, Liturgy of crystal, with David Rowden’s clarinet imitating a blackbird while Osborne and Stender provided the “halo of trills” over Maria Raspopova’s pulsing piano chords. The work is democratic in its distribution of solos. Rowden showed his superb technique and artistry in the challenging solo movement Abyss of the birds with its ultra-slow tempo and huge demands on breath control and handling of dynamic, from the faintest pianissimo to the full-blooded jubilant bird songs.

Stender didn’t put a foot wrong in the beautiful chant-like Praise for the Eternity of Jesus duet with Raspopova and Osborne shone in the Cluster of rainbows movement near the end of the 50-minute work. The full quartet worked superbly in unison for Dance of fury and the trio minus piano managed the perky Interlude winningly.

The final movement, Praise to the Immortality of Jesus, was judged to perfection in its slow ascent, in Messiaen’s words, “of man towards his God, of the child of God towards his Father, of the being made divine toward Paradise”.