★★★½☆ James Ledger’s transcriptions star in intriguing evening of German Romantics.

City Recital Hall, Angel Place, Sydney
April 20, 2016

You have to applaud the ambition of the Sydney-based Omega Ensemble. Clarinettist David Rowden formed the group back in 2005 to present an eclectic array of chamber music chosen from across the centuries, and so far they have enthralled and entertained with an imaginative mix of music. Along the way they have even managed to commission Australian composers to write and arrange for their flexible line up. Currently City Recital Hall ‘ensemble-in-residence’, this concert was no exception, offering a pair of challenging re-workings of German heavyweights Wagner and Strauss, a relative Mahler rarity and a new work by leading compositional light (and broadcaster) Andrew Ford.

Perth-based composer James Ledger was the man tasked with the arrangements, and on the whole he did a fine job with a fiendish brief. That the Strauss came off better than the Wagner was more a case of its suitability to an 11-player adaptation than the skill of the arranger. The Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde is a big musical beast, and in its original orchestrations it’s often cited as one of the pieces that changed the course of music history. Hearing it launched on solo cello with wind quintet playing the famous ‘Tristan chord’ was fascinating, laying bare, as it did, Wagner’s harmonic intentions for all to hear. The slow pressure cooker of the following five minutes proved more tricky. Too often the melodic lines felt unsupported and some intonation problems, plus the odd horn malfunction, resulted in a general feeling of unease. Fortunately the impressively secure and passionate violin playing of Ike See and Anna McMichael pulled some of the fat out of the fire, driving the interpretation to a suitably passionate climax.

The Liebestod featured rising star soprano Lee Abrahmsen who gave a clean, clear reading of the demanding solo line. With such reduced forces it was nice to be able to hear each word and every tricky Wagner turn, and the build to the triumphant “in des Welt-Atems wehendem All” was rich and satisfying (though as substantial a voice as the impressive Abrahmsen could still have benefitted from a fuller orchestration).

Andrew Ford’s Contradance was a challenging piece, written for identical forces to the Wagner transcription (though more likely the other way around). A substantial work inspired by imaginary folk music (“Martian” folk, Ford called it in his witty introductory speech), it launched itself from the nether regions of the piano. hand-in-hand with rasping contrabassoon, bass clarinet and plucked bass, it’s halting rhythmic ruckus brought to mind Bartók taking a turn on the dance floor with the lovechild of Malcolm Arnold and John Adams. From that lumbering start it soon picked up with nimble cross playing on piccolo and duetting violins. Omega generally offered a sure footed and disciplined contribution, before the almost bluesy postlude wound the work down with a lovely horn solo over gently lapping strings.

Although a student work, Mahler’s single-movement Piano Quartet is heavy with the misty melancholy of late Brahms, plus a certain fin de siècle Viennese nostalgia. It’s a work of instant appeal that finally seems to be getting its programming due and produced some of the finest playing of the evening. With his sweet, easy, silvery tone, Ike See proved the perfect leader here, his stylish duetting with Neil Thompson’s fine viola was harmonious and involving. With strong support at the bottom from Teije Hylkema on cello and Maria Raspopova’s graceful piano, the piece traversed the hills and vales of Mahler’s twilight world in a beautifully reading, finely crafted for maximum emotional impact.

The evening’s finale was Ledger’s arrangement of Richard Strauss’ valedictory Four Last Songs, one of the pinnacles of the repertoire and not to be messed with lightly. Happily, this proved revelatory, an extra viola and cello providing the perfect makeweight to the Wagner line up. With it’s clear, yet detailed sound, the ensemble was attractively reminiscent in effect (if not makeup) to the Sextet from Strauss’ final opera Capriccio, with many subtle moments beautifully touched in from Ledger’s orchestrational palette. If the opening Frühling taxed Abrahmsen a little at the top, the middle register was rich and warm. Given that the gossamer orchestrations left nowhere to hide vocally the soprano coped admirably, and if these songs really require a lifetime to plumb their full depths, in time I’d imagine Abrahmsen will find more to mine in both text and subtext.

September opened with beautifully breezy strings and fluttering woodwind, but was a little speedy and the singer’s melismatic lines felt occasionally rushed, the phrasing a trifle perfunctory. The nocturnal mood of the following Beim Schlafengehen was perfectly captured on lower strings. Ike See’s ravishing violin solo was a treat and Abrahmsen’s phrasing was here spot on, her voice rising to a fine climax. The sublime Im Abendrot was a calm and fitting conclusion to an evening that challenged and engaged, and if everything didn’t quite come off, it’s wonderful to see a group so committed to thinking outside of the musical box.