A large and devoted audience filled the glowing wooden interiors of the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall at the Melbourne Recital Centre last Wednesday night for the opening concert of Ensemble Liaison’s 2016 series. The trio turns 10 this year, and have promised an impressive programme of three concerts for the year. As David Griffiths (clarinet) hinted as he addressed the audience at the beginning of the concert, Wednesday night’s edition was going to be ‘epic’. Three works, all from the 20th century, all requiring the help of an expert collection of ‘friends’, both old and new, and each testing the skill and expertise of the veteran ensemble.
The opening work, while not exactly ‘epic’, made for a solid concert opener. Ernest Bloch’s Three Nocturnes explores contrasting moods, from the haunting stillness of the first movement, to robust lyricism in the second, and rumbling energy in the third. Ensemble Liaison core members Svetlana Bogosavljevic (cello) and Timothy Young (piano) were joined by their first friend for the evening, MSO Associate Concertmaster Sophie Rowell, for an expressive reading of this concise concert opener, which they carried off with sensitivity and aplomb.
Things really heated up in Ernst von Dohnányi’s sextet for clarinet, horn, string trio and piano. Ensemble Liaison were joined here by regular guest Elizabeth Sellars (violin), plus new additions Chris Moore (viola) and Roman Ponomariov (French horn), for this hot-blooded reading of the dynamite work. Composed in 1935, the sextet in many ways reveals the composer’s debt to Brahms, with Dohnanyi’s approach to contrapuntal and thematic design making for a kind of souped up take on the Romantic master. The work presents a variety of moods and characters, from the drama of the first movement to the eerie beauty of the second, then finishing up with the light-hearted gambol of the final two movements.
Despite the unusual combination of instruments, Ensemble Liaison achieved a natural balance. The ensemble’s fluid approach to shaping tempi was highly appealing, with each player always delivering nuanced line, even in the most bustling sections of the work. Griffith’s clarinet frequently doubled the horn, providing a beautiful roundness to the sound, though occasionally getting lost amongst the bristling activity of Dohnányi’s score (an issue of orchestration rather than of performance).
Perhaps the most magical moment of this reading was the opening to the second movement Intermezzo, which features an extraordinary harmonic alchemy, with the three string players crafting gorgeously melting chromatic chords, punctuated by Young’s piano. The jocular final movement had the whole ensemble roaring forward with a charmingly banal melody that dashed and jumped from one instrument to another. A final crescendo revealed the last of Dohnányi’s jokes – making to finish in one key, but ending in another. The audience were clearly delighted, as the first half of the concert was brought to an amusing and satisfying conclusion.
Following interval, Bogosavljevic and Griffiths returned, joined by Rowell, Sellars and Moore to perform Osvaldo Golijov’s 1994 composition, The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind for clarinet and string quartet. A moving and multifaceted view of the Jewish condition, the work draws on a wealth of musical tropes associated with Jewishness familiar to the Argentinean composer through his growing up in an Eastern European Jewish household.
In the work, Golijov assimilates the liturgical music of the Jewish responsorial tradition with the sly, limping, sad-cum-joyful bounce of Klezmer, creating a mercurial and unique interpretation of the visions of the 12th-century Jewish mystic and Kabbalist, Isaac the Blind. Everything from ram’s horn calls to broken accordions and the devil’s laughter is painted into this scintillating musical landscape, and the demands placed on the performers are similarly diverse, if not extreme.
The central string quartet forms the main textural body of the work. Operating perfectly as a unit, the quartet of Rowell, Sellars, Moore and Bogosavljevic navigated the manifold timbral and stylistic diversions of Golijov’s epic work (to borrow Griffith’s adjective). While largely an accompaniment and complement to the clarinet part, the quartet features some of the most ethereal and magical sonorities, from haunting and diaphanous unison chords that dissipate into the air, to dizzyingly mad Jewish folk tunes scurrying around while bows scrape and scratch at the bridge.
If David Griffiths played a supporting role in the Dohnányi, then the complete opposite was true for the Golijov. Committing with untold degrees of ‘chutzpah’ to the flittering, squawking and dramatic virtuosity of Golijov’s clarinet part (which is really the star of the work), Griffiths gave a truly standout, definitely no-holes-barred performance. Working through five different clarinets, including bass clarinet and basset horn, Griffiths managed each transition with complete ease, weaving the subtle nuances of each instrument into the complex fabric of the work.
Ending with the most feather light, threadlike string timbres mingled with plaintive, distant sobs of clarinet melody, Ensemble Liaison’s rendering of Golijov’s Dreams and Prayers left the audience spellbound in silence. It's a testament to the ensemble’s daring that they programmed a piece of contemporary music, particularly such an incredibly intricate and challenging one, as the crown of their 10th anniversary season opening concert. With this outstanding night of programming and performance, Ensemble Liaison, with their superb bunch of friends, have continued to cement themselves as one of Australia’s most accomplished chamber ensembles.
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