Saturday, 21st May, 2023 was a cold and drizzly day accompanied by umbrellas, overcoats and a somewhat grey pallor to the sky. By contrast, on arrival at the Iwaki Auditorium, I sensed an air of excited anticipation for what was to come – the performance of three clarinet quintets and one string quartet with the yidaki. It was clear that amid the turbulence of this epoch the desire for culture and art remains paramount. At 11:00am the capacity audience was welcomed to country by Principal Clarinet of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, David Thomas, accompanied by the string quartet of Tair Khisambeev, Freya Franzen, Gabrielle Halloran and Rohan de Korte. Immediately following this was the performance of the Mozart Clarinet Quintet in A major, K. 581.
The first movement Allegro announced the principal theme with a brisk tempo accompanied throughout with calm, respectful and tasteful phrasing. Thematic interplay was abundantly manifested with ease between members of the ensemble. Rounded cadence points were maintained within a dignified setting. Appropriate respect was always given to the classical idiom. It was indeed pleasing to hear some occasional and additional melodic embellishments from the basset clarinet. As an aside, David Thomas stated that the basset clarinet (as opposed to the clarinet in A) was his instrument of choice. The basset clarinet (originally known as the bass clarinet, until Adolph Sax invented the present version) was originally scored by Mozart for his clarinettist friend Anton Stadler. David Thomas paid due respect to these origins. The basset clarinet has an extended range of bass notes, which, at the time, admirably provided a new sonority in timbre and register. David Thomas performed upon this instrument with consummate virtuosic control in technique and expression.
The second movement Larghetto, once again, progressed with a relaxed and calm approach. There was a wonderful balance between the prominent solo voice of the basset clarinet and the accompanying string quartet. Indeed, the synthesis of melody, counterpoint, form, texture, and intent combined to produce a most praiseworthy result. The decorated cadenza from the basset clarinet emerged with radiance to return to the principal theme in a very effective pianissimo setting. The movement concluded with a peaceful sense of accomplishment.
The third movement, like the first movement, commenced with a brisk tempo. It was very pleasing to see the ensemble clearly enjoying the pulse of the Menuetto. It was equally pleasing to hear the additional basset clarinet decorations added to the flow of the melody. There was a sense of joy throughout, once again clearly stated appropriately within the classical idiom.
The final movement in theme and variation form was delivered in a purposeful and assertive manner. All the variations were performed with ease between members of the ensemble. It was a matter of genius that Mozart chose this form to conclude this masterpiece. Every member of the ensemble had an opportunity to shine and to come to the forefront. The rich sonority of the bass notes in the basset clarinet emerged in cascading arpeggio form preceded by evocative and radiant phrasing from the violins, viola and the cello. The final statement was manifestly conclusive having been delivered with summary commitment and purpose. This was a wonderful performance delivered with dignity and respect to Mozart.
The following item in this concert transported the audience well over 200 years to Peter Sculthorpe’s String Quartet No.12, From Ubirr, first completed in 1994 and premiered by the Kronos Quartet and yidaki player David Coulter at the Barbican in London. The yidaki has a narrower bore than the generic didgeridoo yet retains similar tonal and acoustic properties. The music was adapted from an earlier orchestral work called Earth Cry (1986). This performance warmly welcomed Amos Roach as the specialist with the yidaki. Peter Sculthorpe refers to “Ubirr” in his String Quartet no 12:
“Ubirr is a large rocky outcrop in Kakadu National Park, in northern Australia. It houses some of the best and most varied Aboriginal rock painting in the country. Many of the paintings have been proven to be the earliest-known graphic expressions of the human race. They clearly demonstrate a caring relationship with the environment, and the Aboriginal belief that the land owns the people, not the people the land… It asks us to attune ourselves to the planet, to listen to the cry of the earth as the Aborigines have done for many thousand years. The work is a straightforward and melodious one. Its four parts are made up of quick, ritualistic music framed by a slower music of supplicatory nature, and an extended coda. The slow music is accompanied by a yidaki pitched to E, and the quick music by a second yidaki pitched to C. The instrument represents the sound of nature, of the earth itself.”
The string quartet with accompanying yidaki led by Amos Roach entered the stage to warm applause. Immediately, a prolonged unaccompanied solo on the yidaki captured the setting of timelessness and reverence for the land. It was a subdued, mystical, evocative and spiritual statement capturing the howling and growls of native animals within the continuous sustained yidaki drone. Timelessness and eternity were evoked from this sonority, clearly demonstrating the Aboriginal belief that “the land owns the people, not the people the land.”
The string quartet gradually emerged in the commentary, passing phrases to each other as a tone poem reacting to the story and detail of timeless history. The energy of this cosmic tone poem was noticeably maximised in the repetitive rhythmic motif heard in the superb viola of Gabrielle Halloran. Quick passages of brilliant interjections between the violins of Tair Khisambeev and Freya Franzen as well as from the cello of Rohan de Corte combined to proclaim the unquestioned permanence of the universe as more dominant to the trials and tribulations of humanity.
The synthesis of the string quartet and the yidaki emerged as a unified and consistent statement of purpose, respect and intense expression. This became clearly manifest as the ensemble came to repose with the sustained, quiet, gentle and reflective yidaki in the background. It was indeed a very respectful homage to the land and cosmos, exceptionally led by the humble yet proud and dignified disposition of Amos Roach.
Lachlan Skipworth’s Clarinet Quintet, The Eternal brought David Thomas back to join the distinguished ensemble of string players. Lachlan Skipworth wrote his Clarinet Quintet in 2016, and it was recorded for his first album of chamber works. In his own program note, he gave the following description:
“My Clarinet Quintet offers a dystopian response to our current time through the deep sadness of its harmonic language and its drawn-out melodic lines. The arch structure traces a questioning of the status quo in increasing degrees of urgency, falling back to a disturbed state of acceptance to end the work.”
Indeed, this performance reflected a multitude of soundscapes with long sustained pianissimo passages enveloped in consonant and dissonant sonorities. Conservative idioms of composition were challenged with ascending and descending glissandi, howling growls and textural restlessness.
This quintet manifested into a statement of continual dialogue and commentary. The musicians worked tirelessly to engender the expressive elements contained within the score. A sense of progressive direction was continually provoked and animated towards the conclusion accompanied by rapturous applause from the audience. As the applause continued Lachlan Skipworth was acknowledged with delight and enthusiastic celebration. This was a very convincing and successful performance.
The final item in this varied program was the Clarinet Quintet in F-sharp minor, Op.10 by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. This quintet is a personal favourite of David Thomas, having heard it at an early age. There has been some discussion as to the relative merits of this composition as it is heavily influenced by the language of Dvorak. This was very apparent in the first movement with some brief influences also from Brahms. As an aside, I do not think this is a matter of criticism as all composers in some way reflect their heritage and all compositions reflect periods of maturity and a search for a personal voice. Nonetheless, this movement was presented with integrity and vitality.
The second movement produced lush textures amongst the strings. Moments of joy developed into thematic glimpses of reflective melancholy within a pastoral setting. David Thomas demonstrated a beautifully expressive control of tone throughout, producing a wonderful synthesis of voices and tone colours within the entire movement.
The Scherzo third movement went forth with declamatory energy combined with highly responsive dialogue within the multitude of calling and answering statements. It then proceeded to the final movement Allegro agitato. This is where I was able to identify the true voice of Samuel Coleridge-Taylor.
This movement demonstrated the composer in a more independent and forward-looking voice. The ensemble was clearly supportive of this, settling into a moment of repose towards the proclamation of a decisive and emphatic coda.
This was a perfect conclusion to a very enjoyable Sunday afternoon concert presented by the MSO Concert Program Series. Thank you very much David Thomas, Tair Khisambeev, Freya Franzen, Gabrielle Halloran, Rohan de Korte and Amos Roach. This was indeed a superlative concert!
Mark Dipnall reviewed “Clarinet Quintets”, presented by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra at the Iwaki Auditorium on May 21, 2023.