The bookends of this program were Australian composer James Ledger’s arrangements for the chamber resources of the Omega Ensemble for Wagner’s Vorspiel and Liebestod (from Tristan and Isolde) and Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs. They were joined by the wonderful Melbourne soprano Lee Abrahmsen. Doing cut-down arrangements of large and very famous orchestral works is a potentially dangerous venture. Does the cut down version yield a satisfying musical result or is it just a series of disappointments of aural expectations?
Certainly in the soft passages, like the opening phrase with the famous “Tristan” chord, having single instruments was perfectly satisfying. Wagner’s huge orchestra is usually in a pit beneath the stage and the sound is to some extent muffled. Here we had crystal clear sound, with the intensity and freshness of an individual performer’s vibrato, rubato and dynamics.
The story was somewhat different for the famously orgasmic climaxes in the Vorspiel. In the orchestral version these are ravishing and the expectation inherent in the musical build-up cannot be avoided. While their rendition was good, with a piece this famous, the timbral expectations made the entry of a piano distracting.
There is a thin line between distracting from the enjoyment of the music and being interested in how the arranger dealt with certain problems. A tremolo on the double bass substituting for a solo timpani roll was interesting, but this was not at a moment of climactic expectation. There were moments when I thought the ensemble could have benefited from a conductor to hold the broadening tempos together at the climaxes, thus increasing the dramatic impact.
Although at opposite ends of the opera, the Vorspiel transitioned seamlessly to the Liebestod and here Abrahmsen’s rich warm voice fulfilled the musical expectations. Being pitched against chamber resources instead of a monster orchestra meant she could go for beauty in the sound rather than impressive power. There was always the sense that she had plenty more to give if she chose, instilling an underlying feeling of security. Her intelligent performance was balanced to the ensemble and the acoustic. The effect was satisfying indeed.
The Wagner was musically satisfying. I was certainly glad to hear it and it did give a different perspective having such transparent textures. Interesting.
Flipping to the end of the concert, much of what was said above applied to the Strauss Four Last Songs too. Strauss wrote these songs for full orchestra in 1948 at the end of his life, as a sort of farewell. The chamber arrangement constraints made the songs beautiful rather than ravishing. And that is a valid and satisfying musical outcome. The arrangement here really did not clash with expectations. Again Abrahmsen’s voice shone and the established balance was perfect. The performance was gorgeous.
The other music in the concert was as originally scored, not arranged.
Andrew Ford’s Contradance was composed specifically for the ensemble and its first ever performance. This is a delightful work, full of folksy dance melodies, and sat in the program in strong contrast to the Wagner. It is anything but cutesy. Often meter and rhythm are at odds and frequently there is a sort of demented dancing gait, with multiple contrasting dances happening at once. It reminded me of a Bruegel painting. You would think with a piece of this complexity a conductor would be necessary but the ensemble handled it magnificently without. It always felt secure and tight. The piece was a lot of fun; congratulations both to Ford and the ensemble. It deserves to be part of the repertoire, I hope to hear it again some time.
A surprising delight on this program was the Piano Quartet in A minor written by Mahler in 1876 when he was only 17 and a student at the Vienna Conservatorium. Mahler’s long symphonic music can get a bit rambly, but this single movement piece was anything but. It is structurally clear and thematically coherent. The performance was warm and intense. This was such an unexpected surprise; the piece instantly became one of my favourite Mahler compositions.
The concert was recorded by the ABC and will be broadcast on Classic FM at 8pm on Monday 25 April 2016. It is definitely worth a listen if you missed the live one.