For classical music, one of today’s big dilemmas is how to programme. Do you risk everything with edgy – even new – work? Or do you play safe? Will the Romantic standards bring in new audiences? Or will predictable programming turn off the aficionados who heard that work only last month somewhere else? Without offering up any answers, last night’s solid Omega Ensemble concert at City Recital Hall was reasonably well attended, but it has to be said that its two-part Schubertiad was the 19th-century equivalent of meat and two veg – decidedly tasty, but nevertheless a meal designed not to offend the unadventurous palate.
Having said that, what’s not to like about a succulent slice of Schubert’s Trout? Perhaps the perfect piece of chamber music, it’s a work that never seems to pall and equally rarely never outstays its welcome. Taking his theme from the fourth movement – a set of variations on his own Lied, Die Forelle – Schubert builds a series of complimentary movements featuring aquatic and piscatorial musical imagery. Melodic invention is high – there isn’t a movement you can’t hum along to – and the five movements are brilliantly weighted so that contrasting emotions can ebb and flow like a river on a warm summer’s day.
There was a lovely sweetness to violinist Alexandra Osborne’s upper register as she slipped and dived in and out of the texture, pausing here and there to duet with Neil Thompson’s slightly less demonstrative viola. Paul Stender (cello) and Alex Henery (bass) growled along underneath it all, their roles crucial, if not quite as showy, while Maria Raspopova bubbled away on top, her piano nicely balanced to enhance the texture without ever overpowering matters.
The opening movement set off at a good, sprightly lick, though there was the occasional difference of opinion as to pace early on. The languorous Andante was tastefully relaxed, if perhaps in need of a little more purpose here and there. No complaints about the lively Scherzo which fizzed with lashings of crispness and bite, while the famous variations twisted hither and thither, Stender’s cello-as-angler engaging in a compelling call and response with Osborne’s shimmering violin-as-fish. The Finale was detailed and ended with the kind of flourish that the performance maybe needed a little more of. A good solid Trout, then, well-grilled if not exactly flambéed.
In the second half, Schubert’s Octet for Strings with Clarinet, Horn and Bassoon received a very fine performance indeed, the ensemble feeling just a little more resolute and ‘led’. A faintly schizophrenic work, the piece looks back to Mozart with its antique Menuetto allegretto, yet by the end can be seen pointing forward to Schumann and even Brahms. At 45 minutes, it’s a long work and lacks the sheer memorability of the Trout, thus several movements do feel like they go on a bit, but the Omega string quartet enhanced by Veronique Serret on second violin, David Rowden on clarinet, Ben Hoadley on bassoon and Michael Dixon on horn put not a single a foot wrong, offering some really distinguished playing throughout.
Although all eight players are given their chance to be first among equals, it’s the clarinet that shoulders the lion’s share of the solo work and Rowden proved a fine collaborator, never hogging the limelight, yet making his presence felt with warm tone and sensitive phrasing. His duet work with Osborne in the gentle, if lengthy, Adagio was textbook, while the feisty Scherzo gave him some virtuoso moments contrasting nicely with Stender’s tidy divisions in the trio. In general, there was a real rapport among the players, especially when enjoying the cheeky fourth movement variations, and if the Menuetto feels a liitle surplus to requirements – Schubert’s fault, not Omega’s – the typically Viennese Allegro finale saw the work and the ensemble come together at their passionate best.
An enjoyable concert, then, in which a pair of reliable repertoire pieces received fine performances. I can’t help wishing though that the players had taken things a little more by the scruff of the neck and made these works their own, even at the cost of offending the conservatives.