City Recital Hall, Sydney
July 18, 2018

Few works drip passion and drama like César Franck’s 1886 Violin Sonata. Written as a wedding present for the legendary Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe, the work has become a jewel of the instrument’s repertoire – and it’s been poached by violists, cellists and flute players along the way.

The Omega Ensemble’s Alexandra Osborne brought a sound both sweet and deliciously dark to her assured performance of the Sonata with pianist Clemens Leske, kicking off the ensemble’s Love: Weber and Franck concert, carving beautiful, well-paced phrases with a tone well-suited to sing through the substantial piano part. The second movement saw her sound take on a fierce edge, Leske and Osborne always well-matched and pulling very much in the same direction with a muscular power to their fortissimos. Osborne gave a convincing account of the Recitativo – Fantasia, and if more lightness perhaps could have served to build the dramatic climaxes even more powerfully, she and Leske nonetheless propelled the music forward into a thrilling finale that blazed, ultimately, to a resplendent conclusion that more than justified the work’s perennial popularity.

Omega EnsembleLloyd Van’t Hoff and David Rowden in Omega Ensemble’s Love: Weber and Franck. Photo © David Vagg

The passion continued in Gerard Brophy’s moving new work We Two Boys Together Clinging, which takes the Walt Whitman poem from Leaves of Grass as its inspiration. Built around two clarinets – Lloyd Van’t Hoff joining Omega’s David Rowden – strings and piano, the work was commissioned by Mark Wakely in loving memory of his late partner Steven Alward, and it premiered at the Four Winds Easter Festival earlier this year. We Two Boys Together Clinging opened with turbulent figures racing from the violin down the ensemble before coming together in a motoring, rhythmic texture evoking the straining forward momentum of Whitman’s poetry. Van’t Hoff and Rowden dovetailed and played off each other, their interweaving music at the centre of the work, which became, from the boisterous opening, more intimate as it progressed. There were exquisite moments when the texture thinned out, the clarinets mingling, a slow heartbeat pizzicato from the double bass holding the music together in an incredibly touching performance.

Omega EnsembleAlexandra Osborne, Sun Yi, David Rowden, Neil Thompson and Paul Stender in Omega Ensemble’s Love: Weber and Franck. Photo © David Vagg

The second half of the concert was lighter, opening after interval with Elgar’s Opus 62 Romance for bassoon and, in this case, a small string ensemble – the arrangement finding a halfway point between Elgar’s original version for orchestra and the piano reduction. This setting allowed Ben Hoadley’s bassoon lines to really shine – the strings a mild, unobtrusive (though refined) accompaniment to his smooth-edged melodies, rich sound and sweet high register. Chasing this was Weber’s Clarinet Quintet – originally written for Munich court musician Heinrich Baermann – which put Rowden back in the spotlight in a light, fleet performance that showed off his easy virtuosity and smooth-as-glass technique. Sitting back in the Allegro, Rowden let the strings handle the drama while he delivered cascades of notes with an almost cheeky insouciance, anchoring the work’s light mood. His pianissimi were remarkable, both in his echoed flourishes and the longer, lyrical phrases of the Fantasia second movement. The Menuetto bubbled with life while the finale buzzed with tightly wound energy, propelled by the galloping strings (the ensemble was rock-solid throughout). While this was taut playing throughout the movement, the release promised by the excitingly built tension was never quite delivered. But the Weber was a fun ride, with knowing smiles flicked across the ensemble as the musicians played off the humorous turns, and it was all delivered with impeccable skill and winning, light-hearted pleasure.