Formed in 2005 by David Rowden, the Sydney based Omega Ensemble is in many respects similar to the Melbourne based Ensemble Liaison. Not the least of these similarities is the fact that both are directed by gifted clarinet players, whose enterprise, imagination and artistry have enhanced the musical life of their respective cities. Presumably by sheer coincidence, David Griffiths and three outstanding string players selected to complement the core Ensemble Liaison trio could be heard in the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall the previous night in their brilliant Noir program.
Although the Omega Ensemble forces were confined to clarinet, piano and soprano in a program of standard repertoire, the choice of works by Poulenc, Strauss and Schubert were bound to please, especially performed as splendidly as they were. Lee Abrahmsen’s glorious voice might have been more at home in the MRC’s larger venue, but such is the excellence of her vocal technique that she conveyed the nuances of Poulenc’s melodies with admirable control.
Glamorous in vibrant green, she characterised each song with an equally vivid vocal texture. The selections from Banalités gave her the opportunity display a variety of mood and colour. In a witty, deliciously languid Hôtel you could almost see the cigarette smoke curl upwards in leisurely indifference. After the initial bracket of songs Abrahmsen spoke briefly about the content of those songs and the three that followed: an affecting C with admirably pared back high notes, a sensuous Violon and a sprightly Les Gars qui vont à la fête.
Whether written translations should be provided is always a moot point. Artists prefer to sing to eyes rather than the tops of heads and Abrahmsen is a very communicative artist, who makes intelligent use of facial expression to convey meaning. But, Poulenc is a master of illuminating poetic subtlety with detailed musical shadings and if you were unfamiliar with these poems by Apollinaire, Aragon and Vilmorin much of the subtlety would have been missed. As it was, the shifting moods were, at the very least, unmistakeable.
For the second group of songs, Four Lieder by Richard Strauss, Abrahmsen was well and truly on home territory and Maria Raspopova’s piano seemed more relaxed and at one with her. From the drama of Ruhe meine Seele! to the more expansive Cäcilie both singer and pianist immersed themselves in the emotional landscape. The final Morgen! was particularly arresting (despite the absence of a violin). Abrahmsen has just the right equipment to embody those long phrases: excellent breath control and a beautiful warm tone with satisfying substance. Time stood still – just as it should. This miraculous opus would have to be the best wedding present of all time.
Before the final item, when all three artists came together for Schubert’s Der Hirt auf dem Felsen (The Shepherd on the Rock), David Rowden and Maria Raspopova gave a persuasive account of Poulenc’s Sonata for Clarinet and Piano. Composed in 1962, the year before his death, it was dedicated to the memory of Honegger. Rowden’s even velvety tone and musical shaping coupled with Raspopova’s responsive and assured accompaniment made it a constant pleasure. It was also a reminder of just how accessible and exceptionally rewarding this work is to hear live, especially in the intimacy of the Salon.
What was almost Schubert’s swan song is certainly one of his most popular works for voice. As the program notes, it was written in “response to Anna Milder-Hauptmann’s request for a crowd-pleaser that would showcase her technical brilliance and breadth of emotional expression” – a tall order for those who follow. Abrahmsen rose to the occasion splendidly. There was going to be no problem with the emotional expression, but the clarity of the challenging runs as Spring comes towards the end of the of the song was indeed brilliant and the top notes were taken with room to spare. Sensitive, finely articulated work from clarinet (those gorgeous echoed phrases!) and piano made this as big a crowd pleaser as any soprano could have wanted.
After a hiccup last year, Omega Ensemble has finally made it to Melbourne as part of the MRC’s Spotlight series. Hopefully, David Rowden and company will not take so long to make a return visit.