City Recital Hall, Sydney
November 16, 2017

The Omega Ensemble’s final concert for 2017 came off the back of an important milestone for any ensemble – their first international tour. The group travelled to China in November – giving performances and masterclasses at the Beijing Central Conservatory, JiLin College of the Arts and Dalian University – and brought back a souvenir, Autumn Moon over a Calm Lake, which Co-Artistic Director Maria Raspopova performed as an encore at the end of Ravel Impressions. With music evoking the gentle sparkle of light on water, rippling under Raspopova’s hands, it was a tranquil end to an evening that saw the ensemble span music from the lesser-known Russian composer Anton Arensky to Ravel’s first and only string quartet.

Omega Ensemble, Ravel ImpressionsDavid Rowden, Maria Raspopova and Neil Thompson in the Omega Ensemble’s Ravel Impressions. Photo © Stephen Bydder

Arensky, whose students at St Petersburg Conservatory included Rachmaninov, Medtner, and Scriabin, wrote his Piano Trio in 1894 and dedicated it to Karl Davidov, director of the Conservatory when Arensky was a student. A romantic violin melody from Catalin Ungureanu weaved its way above lush piano from Raspopova, Paul Stender soon adding his dark cello sound to the ensemble, dovetailing with Ungureanu. The Allegro Moderato first movement is the most substantial in this Trio, double the length of the following movements and charting a course of dramatic high romance before the friskier Schero – which saw Ungureanu’s bow bouncing on the strings, singing cello solos and rollicking piano – and a wistful Elegia. The passionate finale was full of charged, sonorous string lines underpinned by dramatic chords from Raspopova, leading ultimately to a decisive final flourish.

Mozart’s “Kegelstatt” Trio – the popular nickname “skittles” bearing no relation to the music or history of the piece – was written a bit over 100 years before the Arensky, with Anton Stadler (for whom Mozart wrote his Clarinet Concerto) as clarinettist. To cap off the first half of the concert, Co-Artistic Director David Rowden and violist Neil Thompson joined Raspopova onstage, Rowden’s rounded tone offset by Thompson’s edgier sound. While there were a couple of moments when the intonation felt a trifle unsteady, the players brought precise ensemble-work to the bold opening gestures through to the bright Menuetto, Raspoova dispatching flurries of notes as the Rondo finale reached its climax.

The third in Omega’s trio of trios was Fauré’s – his Piano Trio in D Minor, his penultimate composition, written in the final years of his life, following his retirement as Director of the Paris Conservatoire. Here Rowden and Stender delivered wonderfully clean octave and unison playing across all three movements, the sound of clarinet and cello blending to create a rich sonority above Raspopova’s piano.

Omega Ensemble, quartet, Ravel ImpressionsCatalin Ungureanu, Airena Nakamura, Neil Thompson and Paul Stender. Photo © Stephen Bydder

But it was a performance of Ravel’s String Quartet that was the high point of this concert. While the trios were clean and pleasant, there was little warmth in the ensemble playing – with the exception of Ungureanu and Stender grinning at each other across the stage in the Arensky – but this all changed in the programme’s final work. Ungureanu, Thompson and Stender were joined by Airena Nakamura for what has to be one of the most exciting performances of the Ravel I’ve heard. The qaurtet’s warm sound blossomed suddenly out of nothing, the four players moving as one beast, but with a beautiful clarity of line and shape across the individual parts. Ungureanu’s sound shone on the top, while Nakamura’s deeper timbre gave her lines a distinctive voice over Thompson’s mellow tone and Stender’s rich cello. The pizzicati in the second movement drove the music forward with a powerful, toe-tapping folk energy, while Thompson’s viola lines in the Très lent were profoundly beautiful, Stender’s cello growling as the music intensified. The biting attacks that open the finale buzzed across the stage before lilting melodies emerged, Ungureanu’s playing sunny, Stender’s athletic, the quartet pushing forward to the final horse-hair shredding bars.