Written for the soloist Anton Stadler in 1789, Mozart’s melancholic Quintet for Clarinet and Strings is usually considered the earliest example of the genre. It marked a departure from the dominant concertante idiom in writing for winds – in earlier works, such as composer’s Oboe Quartet and Flute Quartets, wind players had been awarded, unambiguously, the role of soloist. Indeed, by the late-18th century the solo capacities and tonal possibilities of the clarinet – an instrument still undergoing its evolution – were increasingly recognised. In his 1789 quintet, however, Mozart made Stadler first among equals; the clarinet is integrated within the strings to a great degree, with virtuosic moments carefully chosen to suit Stadler’s talents.

Performers on Stage Omega Ensemble Omega Ensemble performing Gordon Kerry’s Clarinet Quintet in the Joan Sutherland Theatre at the Sydney Opera House. Photograph © Prudence Upt0n

As the clarinet continued to develop into the pre-eminent solo wind instrument of the time, concertante style chamber works featuring the instrument proliferated, especially from Viennese composers and clarinettists themselves. The German Carl Maria von Weber’s clarinet quintet, composed between 1811 and 1815, would find itself alongside Mozart in the essential modern-day quintet repertory: an expressive, theatrical work, Weber’s quintet highlights both technical virtuosity and the cantabile lyricism of the instrument.

Paralleling Mozart’s professional relationship with Anton Stadler, Brahms’ post-retirement B Minor clarinet quintet from 1891 was written for the clarinettist Richard Mühlfeld along with a clarinet trio and two clarinet sonatas. Brahms heard Mühlfeld performing the Mozart clarinet quintet in March 1891 and immediately set to work; the composition received its premiere in December of that year. Brahms took his inspiration not from the virtuosic clarinet chamber music of the 19th century but from the more integrated approach of Mozart himself. This approach to composing for mixed chamber ensembles had continued to develop in singular works such as Beethoven’s Septet and Schubert’s Octet.

The Brahms clarinet quintet almost singlehandedly revived interest in the genre. The repertoire is now vast – one count puts the number of pieces at over 900 – and represents each major movement in Western art music since the end of the eighteenth century; in the twentieth century, the format was explored by composers as diverse as Paul Hindemith, Morton Feldman, Bernard Hermann, and Milton Babbitt.

Omega Ensemble performing Gordon Kerry's Clarinet Quintet in the Joan Sutherland Theatre at the Sydney Opera House.Omega Ensemble performing Gordon Kerry’s Clarinet Quintet in the Joan Sutherland Theatre at the Sydney Opera House. Photograph © Prudence Upt0n

Australians have given the format attention, too: Ian Munro’s 2009 clarinet quintet, Songs from the Bush, inspired by folk tunes from the Australian past, received its premiere with Catherine McCorkill and the Goldner String Quartet in 2010; in 2014, the Omega Ensemble released a live recording of Munro’s work alongside the Mozart quintet. In 2017, the Omega Ensemble has also premiered a concertino for clarinet and string quartet by the Cyrus Meurant. In an echo of both Mozart and Brahms, Australian composer Gordon Kerry’s friendship with Omega Ensemble’s clarinettist, David Rowden, has led to his own Clarinet Quintet. The commission, by Kim Williams AM (a clarinettist himself) for Omega, contributes yet another Australia premiere to the ensemble’s impressive repertoire of new music from composers such as Elena Kats-Chernin, Andrew Ford, Matthew Hindson, Paul Stanhope, Gerard Brophy, and Sally Whitwell, Nico Muhly and Airat Ichamouatov.

Kerry writes: “What inspired Mozart and Brahms to write their late masterpieces was, in both cases, the opportunity to write for a musician of rare gifts. Mozart had Anton Stadler whose instrument was ‘capable of imitating a human voice’; a century later, Brahms befriended Richard Mühlfeld, whose playing he likened to a nightingale. I am very lucky to have been able to write for David, and the fine musicians with whom he surrounds himself, and to have had to opportunity to write a substantial piece for them.”

Kerry’s premiere was originally planned to take place in a concert at the Sydney Opera House; Omega were to perform the quintet alongside Clara Schumann’s Piano Trio and an arrangement of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No 1. Not to be deterred, the ensemble instead gave the work its premiere as an exclusive to the Opera House’s digital concert season. Months have passed since Australia’s concert halls were closed to audiences, and there has been much time for ensembles and venues to perfect their digital offerings. The production was clean and professional, and the sound, importantly, was clear, capturing the full dynamic range of the ensemble and the composition. Close-miking ensured fidelity to the intricacies and nuances of each instrument and performer. Commendably, the Opera House has made the performance available to freely enjoy online, on-demand.

Clarinet quintets are usually about 15 to 20 minutes in performance – the more modern examples, however, have ranged from as short as five minutes to over 40 minutes in length. Kerry’s quintet comes in at around 20 minutes but is a comfortable and diverse work – it is just as long as it needs to be. The quintet straddles a concertante style and, placing the clarinet front and centre, and the more integrated, whole-ensemble primus inter pares approach of the two towering clarinet quintets from Mozart and Brahms. Five movements of varying colour and tone – the piece has, much like the Mozart and Brahms again, an underlying hint of melancholy – are bookended with clarinet cadenzas that celebrate Rowden’s technique and lyricism.

Omega Ensemble performers on stageTim Yu and Anna Da Silva Chen. Photograph © Prudence Upton

Between these mesmerising, spiralling cadenzas, Rowden joins the quartet – led by Anna Da Silva Chen with Tim Yu also on violin, Neil Thompson’s viola, and Paul Stender on cello. Kerry makes the most of the combination, allowing instruments to fall in and out of alliances and collaborations, sometimes bringing the sonorous clarinet out over the top of broad chordal movements in the strings, and other times allowing the instruments to weave and dance their way around each other. It is a subtle work, full of detail, and the ensemble fully realises the potential of the clarinet quintet format.

The Omega Ensemble is rightly considered one of the country’s most exciting and forward-thinking chamber groups. With Kerry – whose work, representing some of the best elements of the Australian tradition of composition, continues to surprise and delight – they make a convincing argument for new Australian music. We are all fortunate, in a way, to be able to access this performance and others from wherever we may be. The digital concert, despite keeping audiences at arm’s length, maintained the enveloping intimacy we have come to expect from the Omega Ensemble, and there could not be a better work to showcase its Artistic Director’s talents as a performer and leader. Had a live audience witnessed the premiere performance, I suspect its final moments would not be, as they are now, marked by silence, but instead punctuated with a rousing and much deserved applause.

Gordon Kerry’s Clarinet Quintet was recorded live in the Joan Sutherland Theatre and can be streamed on the Sydney Opera House website