Grand nonet

Tonight I went to hear/see the Australia Ensemble. The program was:

Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827): Piano Trio in E flat, Opus 70 No 2 (1808)

György LIGETI (1923-2006): Ten Pieces for wind quintet (1968)

Luwig SPOHR (1784-1859): Nonet in F for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, violin, viola, cello and double bass (1813)

The Beethoven trio was the less well-known of two which make up his Opus 70 (the other is the “Ghost” Trio which probably ranks only second to the “Archduke” amongst Beethoven’s trios so far as repute or renown are concerned). There was some amusement just before the players started when the cellist, Julian Smiles, announced a “wardrobe malfunction” and removed his cummerbund – “It was going to come off anyway.”

I sit in the fourth row from the front. It was a genially intimate performance, though in the third movement I felt that Ian Munro, the pianist, was playing from a slightly more extroverted song-sheet than the violinist, Dimity Hall.  The piece felt oddly Schubertian: I’m thinking in particular of some rather delicate arpeggiations in the piano’s upper register set off against the theme in the third movement, though clearly Beethoven thought of this first.

The Ligeti was more challenging, despite the helpful instruction by Roger Covell in his program note that, contrary to popular misconception, the first rather than the second syllable of his name bears the stress. Most of the pieces are quite short; the ninth had a particularly striking effect with the clarinet, oboe and piccolo all playing piercingly loud and high (quite a few of the audience shielded their ears) and a mysterious lower harmonic which emerged from somewhere yet also from nowhere. It received only a lukewarm reception. I think it was unwise for Paul Stanhope (who conducted) to allow the atmosphere to be broken between movements.

As I have mentioned before, the Spohr Nonet is one of my favourite works – I have a weakness for underestimated, officially second-rate or second-tier works or composers (as a child I had an Offenbach craze, not to mention a taste for Gilbert and Sullivan).  Compared to the performances of this work I heard earlier this year by the Sydney Omega Ensemble, it was a polished performance, but not always as interesting. 

The violin carries the lion’s share of the musical material.  Whilst Dene Olding was a class above Emily Long, the Omega Ensemble’s violinist, I had hoped for more than he gave. At times he tended to skate over the surface of the elaborate figuration where a more scrupulously accurate account would have been more sparkling. 

So for me it was a case of high expectations not quite met.  Sorry to say that.  Still, I enjoyed it, as did P, who lacked my burden of anticipation.  We both agreed that the medium-warm applause at the end was less than the performance deserved.  Perhaps that is the fate of amiable music.

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