On the advertisement for the premiere of Beethoven’s Op. 20 Septet in E Flat Major in 1800 (the same concert featured Beethoven’s First Symphony), the composer listed each of the performers, knowing audiences would be keen to hear the seven virtuosos playing together. It’s an apt choice, therefore, to showcase the talents of the Australian World Orchestra’s Chamber 8, a crack squad of musicians hand-picked from the larger ensemble for this tour – musicians whose day jobs include positions in orchestras like the Gewandhaus, the Berlin Philharmonic and the LA Philharmonic.
Emerging from the ensemble’s expository chords, it was the mellow sound of Daniel Dodds’ violin that caught the ear in the Adagio introduction, his smoothness of tone soon echoed by that of clarinettist Paul Dean, sitting across the ensemble, his feet lifting off the stage as the ensemble surged forward into the Allegro con brio.
The seven parts are obligatto – even the double bass (Matthew McDonald) gets its share of the spotlight – but the first movement particularly is divided into brightly sparring winds versus strings, with McDonald caught up in the middle. These allegiances are rather fluid, however, Beethoven toying with a number of different combinations throughout the work.
The players were uniformly excellent. There were some fine moments of duetting between Dean and hornist Andrew Bain, whose exquisite decrescendos and subtly shaped phrases were a highlight throughout. Lyndon Watts bassoon lines were beautifully dark-hued in the Adagio cantabile second movement while Dodds and violist Tahlia Petrosian breathed heady life into the stately opening of Tema con variazione, Petrosian taking the reins in the first variation before David Berlin joined with his sonorous, polished cello sound. (This movement also featured some wonderfully light-hearted tapering off in which Dean seemed to tip-toe across the stage without ever leaving his chair.) After delivering some biting gestures in the fifth movement, Bain was showcased once again in the slow march opening of the sixth movement – a nod back to 18th-century peripatetic music-making – before the ensemble leapt into the playfully virtuosic finale.
Beethoven moved on from this Septet to more experimental territory and later came to resent the piece’s enduring popularity (“That’s damned stuff,” he said in 1815, “I wish it were burned!”) but the work still holds plenty of charm today, particularly in the hands of such fine and dynamic musicians.
After a cameo from three of the AWO’s young mentored musicians, who joined cellist Peter Morrison for two movements from Mozart’s Divertimento for String Quartet K138, the second half of the concert saw violinist Natalie Chee leading Dodds, Petrosian, McDonald and Berlin in another relatively youthful work, Dvořák’s String Quintet No 2, Op. 77. McDonald’s bass was in the spotlight from the opening bars, his tenebrous voice kicking off the work before going on to lend a powerful undercurrent to the traditional string quartet sound.
As in the Beethoven, the ensemble work was both excellently refined and excitingly spirited. Melodies passed seamlessly from Chee to Dodds, the bass a deep heartbeat driving the music forward and Berlin relishing the soloistic cello lines. The second movement’s cruching chords and swinging trail-offs were dispatched with plenty of Bohemian flare while Chee’s rich violin sound soared above the ensemble in the Poco andante and winding triplet figures unfurled across the instruments before a transcendently delicate finish. There were some fierce moments in the Finale, and some muscle flexing from the double bass, with Chee first digging into the violin lines, later floating in the ether.
Given the wealth and variety of repertoire out there, this was perhaps not the most adventurous programme with which to debut the Australian World Orchestra’s new chamber line-up, but it’s hard to argue with the sheer skill and musicality of the players who took the stage. Chamber 8 is an ensemble of incredibly musical voices who shine both individually and as a unit, demonstrating an easy yet passionate rapport and a wholehearted commitment to the music. It’s not often you see chamber music of this calibre.
The Australian World Orchestra’s Chamber 8 performs at Melbourne Recital Centre July 27 and Perth Concert Hall July 31.