The bright, languidly elegant first movement to Mozart’s String Quartet No 17 opened Songs from the Bush, Omega Ensemble’s latest offering in the Sydney Opera House Utzon Room. The quartet is nicknamed ‘The Hunt’ (not by Mozart), but it feels more like a stroll in the forest.
The Omega ensemble’s strings – Emma Jardine and Vivien Jeffery on violin, Neil Thompson on viola and Paul Stender on cello – brought a vibrant fullness to their playing, passing trilling figures from one to another. The ensemble gave plenty of kick to the accents in the Menuetto and tripped along merrily in the delicate Trio, while the Adagio had more gravity, Stender’s cello sonorous in the high register and earthy in the low, Emma Jardine’s violin singing out the impassioned moments. The close quarters and tricky acoustic of the Utzon Room make softer playing challenging, but some quieter moments would have allowed the crescendos to pop a bit more. The lively Allegro assai took a few moments to settle rhythmically, but once it got going it motored along to a sunny conclusion.
Artistic Director and clarinettist David Rowden joined the quartet for the first of two Australian works on the programme, the world premiere of a Concertino for Clarinet and String Quartet by Cyrus Meurant, who has composed a number of works for the Omega Ensemble. The clarinet opens the piece, Rowden carving smooth arcs from the instrument’s low register before muted strings added a low register haze. Meurant’s work pulsed and grew, soft dissonances and shimmering strings creating a dream-like atmosphere. Despite some mild intonation issues, Rowden traced clean melodies over the increasingly restless strings, the mood gaining a kind of heroic momentum, repeating, Passacaglia-like harmonies (Elena Kats-Chernin’s Mythic comes to mind) washing over the audience like waves. Despite the name Concertino, the solo part wasn’t flashy, revelling more in the clarinet’s flexible tone and lyrical lines than its capacity for virtuosity.
The 19th-century Italian (though German-inspired) composer Ferrucio Busoni also harnessed the singing lines of the clarinet in his G Minor Suite for the instrument combined with string quartet. Comprising three separate character pieces corralled together at the behest of the composer’s clarinet-playing father, the Suite opens with Romantic melodies from the clarinet, Rowden displaying exquisite control and a magical tone in the softs. The strings brought a healthy vigour to the Vivace e marcato second movement – though the marcato was somewhat soft-edged – and there was some nimble duetting between Jardine and Rowden. The finale saw the lower strings digging into a dark, folky drone in a final movement full of lush string moments and melancholy clarinet melodies, before the final bars fade into silence.
The concert concluded with Australian composer Ian Munro’s Songs from the Bush – inspired by Australian folk music collected in John Meredith’s volume Folk Songs of Australia – which Omega Ensemble recently recorded for ABC Classics. The first movement, Country Dance, opened with a gradual, dawn-like awakening, Rowden trading gestures with Jardine as Stender offered up pizzicato fragments from his cello that soon became the rhythm to which the other instruments danced. The dance was elegant rather than boisterous, the musicians light on their feet.
The second movement, Campfire & Night Sky – all Munro’s own material – had an end-of-the-day stillness, Rowden’s gentle melodies infused with melancholy against the gently pulsing strings. Jardine swung into the lilting opening of the Drover’s Lament with wonderfully gritty relish before the movement settles into a more sombre mood, shivering strings underpinning phrases passed between violin and clarinet before percussive tapping and bouncing bows introduce a jauntier rhythm. Like the Busoni, the work ends in quiet stillness.
The ensemble’s Co-Artistic Director Maria Raspopova introduced the programme as one of subtlety and lyricism, and while this was true, the absence of any real showstopper meant that this was a programme that was always pleasant but rarely exciting. The overall effect was slightly soporific on a Sunday afternoon, and although the two Australian works were highlights, more carefully balanced programming might have shown them off to greater effect.