City Recital Hall, Sydney
February 26, 2018
While fairy tales were the theme of Musica Viva’s first tour of 2018, featuring German clarinettist Sabine Meyer (who was last here in 2011 with the Modigliani Quartet in 2011) and the Alliage Quintett, it could have easily been the circus. From the brightly scurrying Overture of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide – arranged for the Alliage’s baritone, tenor, alto and soprano saxophones and piano by Itai Sobol – to Milhaud’s bubbling Scaramouche, the program had a vibrant party atmosphere. This was a program of bite-sized orchestral miniatures and favourites, arranged especially for the combination and delivered with energetic panache.
The Candide Overture was despatched with dextrous vigour from the Alliage, the wonderfully dark-hued soprano sax of Daniel Gauthier (who founded the group) gilding the upper edge of the ensemble’s sound. While in this instrumental combination the lines of the overture were slightly muddied by the thick sonority of the four saxophones, the musicians’ bouncing energy was infectious.
Sabine Meyer and the Alliage Quintett. Photo © Ira Weinrauch
The ensemble’s timbre seemed better suited to the magical haze that opened Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Sebastian Pottmeier’s baritone sax tiptoeing marvellously and Sabine Meyer joining the group on stage to deliver virtuosic flourishes, her sound clear and distinct from the saxophones.
Shostakovich’s Five Pieces (corralled together and arranged for two violins and piano by Lev Atovmyan with the composer’s blessing) stripped the texture back to just three voices, the musicians joining Alliage pianist Jang Eun Bae in a variety of configurations, the suite split over the two halves of the concert. The intonation between Meyer and Hayrapet Arakelyan on alto felt slightly uncomfortable in the Prelude from The Gadfly (music Shostakovich originally wrote for the 1955 film) her timbre complemented Gauthier’s effectively in the Gavotte. Lilting tenor sax (Simon Hanrath) and baritone took care of the Elegie in the second half while Bae’s piano whirled against alto sax and clarinet in the Walzer (the intonation here impeccable). The Polka, again Gauthier and Meyer, brought the suite to a rollicking conclusion.
Darius Milhaud’s Scaramouche – originally music for a children’s production of Molière’s The Flying Doctor at the Scaramouche Theatre in Paris that became a work for saxophone (later Benny Goodman’s clarinet) and orchestra – was perhaps the most successful arrangement of the evening. The racing semiquavers and bell-like chords in the first movement felt made-to-order for this group, while Meyer’s mellow clarinet melody in the second movement was beautiful. And the Brazileira finale was a cracker.
The second half saw Meyer and the Alliage tackle some larger works. The orchestral colours of Stravinsky’s Firebird concert suite are so vivid that you couldn’t help miss them in this arrangement, though the fluttering music of the Firebird’s dance was great. The Berceuse felt a little heavy, but the Infernal Dance of King Kastchei, with blaring baritone and tenor saxes offset by shrieking upper parts, was fantastic.
The arrangement of Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor suffered similar clarity issues to the Bernstein, though it did offer more opportunities to hear Meyer’s easy virtuosity in the Allegro vivo second movement. The break-neck rendition of America from Bernstein’s West Side Story the ensemble played as the encore, however, was all brilliant clarity and relentless momentum.
This was an unusual offering for Musica Viva, bringing orchestral music into the chamber domain (“I normally don’t allow arrangements in the program,” Carl Vine told Limelight last year), and while it might have leaned toward the light and frothy, the music was played with such effervescent, carnival joy you couldn’t help but walk out with a smile on your face.
Sabine Meyer and the Alliage Quintett will be on national tour for Musica Viva until March 12.