Although this was a Melbourne Chamber Orchestra event it was presented not by the full complement of musicians but by the Australian Octet, as formed and introduced a year ago. However, with this program and the intensity of performance, the near-capacity audience at the Melbourne Recital Centre did not feel shortchanged by having a smaller ensemble on stage.
Composer Paul Stanhope was in the audience for his Nephesh for double string quartet. His program notes explained the concept of the title as unifying “ideas of body and soul as a single entity”, a concept mirrored well in the two sections of the work: Prayer and Dance. The Hebrew cultural influence was evident from the opening lower strings in Prayer, its solemnity underlined by the minor key. The octet joined in the lament punctuated by individual notes, its poignancy well controlled.
The second part of the work – Dance – began tentatively rather than joyously but settled to a folk rhythm, picking up speed as well as a spirited approach. A pause and what would follow showed the perfect sync of the ensemble which seemed propelled forward to a vibrant ending for the work.
Next came another welcome work, by Max Bruch, best known perhaps only known for his luminous violin concerto. But with his octet it was the cellos of Michael Dahlenburg and Jarrad Mathie that first had the job of articulating the beautiful theme, first answered by William Hennessy and then the remaining members of the ensemble.
The work’s rich harmony and emotional intensity was evident by the end of the first subject, with some techniques recognisable from the violin concerto. Altogether it seemed there were far more than eight players on stage. Hennessy’s violin was soaring as he led by example, but the development did not ignore the lower strings and the whole joined to make this an exploration of a melodic idea.
The audience liked what they heard and the end of the first movement drew applause. Unfortunately this was the first of many inappropriate moments for applause within the evening’s program. Sometimes it is not snobbery to regret such interruptions, as they can be unwelcome intrusions.
The second movement began with dramatic footsteps for all (in the score!) and a very sweet articulation of the theme. Understanding between the performers could hardly be better, and the movement flowed. With Hennessy giving the lead the ensemble was as graceful to watch as to hear as phrases passed from one to the other until the movement ended with a perfect cadence.
The third movement, alas, brought another example of when not to clap but the brisk allegro of the fourth movement was welcome and, like the Stanhope, had folk elements to it. The cellists’ first lovely solo phrase to emerge was imitated by the rest. Development of each brought a beautiful performance in sync leading to an exciting and technically challenging ending for this work.
In defiance of usual practice the number of the formers dwindled to six for the final item – Tchaikovsky’s String Sextet in D minor Op 70 Souvenir de Florence. But there was no loss of sound and intensity in the performance of the work which lent its name to the overall program. The two cellos, one viola and three violins gave a resonant performance from the first confident note – luckily, it was loud enough to drown the mobile phone which rang simultaneously!
William Hennessy gave a beautiful solo, as expected, and there was a waltz-like lightness in the development of the theme. The structure may have been conventional but the beauty of the solo violin in particular lifted the sound. All six players played furiously as the work reached the climax.
The second movement’s hymn-like subject led to a beautiful melody for violin with pizzicato accompaniment and a duet with the cello that realised the depth of feeling in Tchaikovsky’s work. The technical demands of the next movements were equally well met until all players joined in the final Allegro con brio e vivace – a slightly frenzied folk dance. The theme moved contrapuntally between them and, for a time, was lost in a waltz rhythm (with overtones of Swan Lake?). It was all superlatives as the sound built to a full and romantic climax and a unison note before an exciting, triumphant ending.
Now, at last, it was time for our enthusiastic audience members to clap!
The photo of Paul Stanhope is by Jason Catlett.