Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony is immensely enduring and, as such, very popular. I was, therefore, keen to hear what a predominately wind ensemble would make of it. In preparation I listened to a performance of the Symphony by the Berliner Philharmoniker conducted by Herbert von Karajan as a comparison far removed from what might be produced by a wind ensemble. I was not disappointed.
The first half of the program, however, took us into slightly different directions. The first piece was Gounod’s Petite Symphony. While Gounod is best known for his opera work he left a number of chamber works, as well as two symphonies. The Petite Symphony has a largely classical structure. The Omega Ensemble featured a flute, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, and horns: two each, except for the flute. The bassoons are to the fore in the first movement, and the clarinets and oboes in the second movement. A clarinet solo is featured. We hear more of the horns in the third movement. Although one is reluctant to make comparisons, the sounds (colours?) by the bassoons were the most striking for me. In a large symphony orchestra the bassoons are there, but rarely stand out in the overall effect. In this transcription the bassoons not only play their own parts, but also ‘cover’ the lower strings. This was to be the pattern for much of the concert. The overall effect, particularly in the fourth movement, is a ‘singing’ ensemble with a wonderful balance between the upper and lower pitched instruments.
The second piece was Nonet in F major by Louis Spohr. The wind instruments (flute, oboe, clarinet, horn and bassoon) are counterposed with a string quartet of violin, viola, cello and double bass. The two groups sat opposite each other and sometimes conversed, and at other times appeared to be in exciting disputation. This was particularly apparent in the contest between the violin (Ike See of the ACO) and the clarinet (David Rowden, the founder of the ensemble). While the piece is overly long, the combination of instruments made it an interesting discovery for me.
The Seventh Symphony occupied the second half of the concert. I was sceptical about whether a wind ensemble (with timpani in the mix) could capture the scope of the orchestration of the work. This time the bassoons were joined by a contrabassoon. While the higher pitched instruments covered the strings effectively, the bassoons and clarinets contributed to depth of work. Wagner described the symphony as the Apotheosis of the Dance itself. The clarinets and oboes gave us an exciting dance rhythm in the first movement with the bassoons taking on more leisurely dance in the second movement. The horns, that had been less prominent in the earlier pieces, seemed to be doing quite lot of work usually associated with brass instruments, although more mellow than might have been the case in a larger orchestra. The only place where some strings might have made a significant difference was in the fourth movement, although the clarinets and oboes did the job more than satisfactorily.
Perhaps it is not entirely fair to compare a wind ensemble with the diversity of a larger orchestra. I felt and heard the distance. Transcriptions can be both familiar but also new. The Omega Ensemble met these requirements admirably. This was my first encounter with the group. It won’t be my last! One of their future concerts features a Mozart bassoon concerto. After being almost mesmerised by the work of the bassoonists in this concert I am clearing my dairy for that performance.
Omega Ensemble: Beethoven’s Seventh | Monday 11 July 2016 | City Recital Hall, Sydney