While the Australia Ensemble are by no means unknown, their concert on the 14th of March at UNSW’s Sir John Clancy Auditorium was a brilliant showcase of works not often heard at today’s chamber concerts. Centered around Beethoven’s ‘Storm’ String Quintet (Op.29, 1801) the audience were also treated to contemporary and romantic works by Australian Elena Kats-Chernin, Austrian Franz Schreker, and Swedish Franz Berwald.
The evening began with Kats-Chernin’s ‘Velvet Revolution’ (1999) for horn trio. Written for piano, horn and violin, the title of the six-movement work refers to the 1989 non-violent revolution against the communist regime in Czechoslovakia. While Kats-Chernin stated in the program notes that the work is not programmatic, it was certainly effective at evoking the atmosphere of Europe close to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Kats-Chernin use of colour, jagged syncopation and harmonic clashes were further added to by the artistry of Dean Olding (violin), Carla Blackwood (horn), and Ian Munro (piano). Despite the unusual combination, Olding’s and Blackwood’s tone matched each other so well that the pairing only seemed natural. A notable highlight was when in the 4th movement ‘Mostly Unison‘, Blackwood played her solo into the body of the piano to trigger the piano’s sympathetic resonance.
Following on was Beethoven’s String Quintet Op.29 ‘Storm’ in C Major; a delightful work from the end of his early period. The quintet is predominately Classical in style yet features a Beethoven pushing the boundaries where he can, and the evening’s performers seemed to take joy in these diversions. Performed by Julian Smiles (cello), Dimity Hall (violin), Irina Morozova (viola), Tobias Breider (viola), and Olding, the five musicians displayed a seamless synchroneity that hooked the audience from the first C major chord. With Morozova and Breider both on viola, and Smiles on cello, the ‘bottom end’ of the tonal range had such a warmth that was it immensely satisfying to listen to.
Next was Schreker’s Der Wind for violin, clarinet, horn, cello and piano. A piece unfamiliar to many, it provided a refreshing contrast to the classicism of the Beethoven. The work, originally written for dance, utilises the instrumentation to set the scene and in this sense all of the performers created an engaging dialogue while beautifully crafting their own solos.
The concert concluded with Berwald’s Septet in B-flat Major (1828), composed for clarinet (David Griffith), horn (Carla Blackwood), bassoon (Lyndon Watts), violin (Dene Olding), viola (Irina Morozova), cello (Julian Smiles) and double-bass (Andrew Meisel). Clearly influenced by Beethoven, the piece walked the line between traditional and innovative. The piece is compositionally interesting yet fun, and the ensemble’s rendition was both masterful and entertaining. Particularly notable were Griffith’s and Watt’s performances, who simultaneously blended and stood out with their expressive phrasing and varied tonal palette. An additional mention should be made for double-bassist Andrew Meisel, whose refined and elegant playing provided the foundation for the rest of the ensemble to give an emotive performance.
Despite the current health concerns, it is incredibly heartening to see live music still being put on for the public and more so to see the public still attending. While the audience attendance wasn’t what it what it might’ve been otherwise, there seems to be an overall sense of appreciation – an appreciation that performers are still willing to perform and that the public are still willing to attend. With that in mind, the Australia Ensemble gave an excellent performance, presenting a program that was dynamic and engaging. The bar has been set high with the opening concert for their 2020 season, so I’m sure audiences are already looking forward to the next one.
Australia Ensemble | Storm and Tempest | 14th March 2020 | UNSW