Introducing Australian Octet

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Published: 27th May, 2014

The formation of a new ensemble is a welcome addition to the wealth of chamber music that Melbourne audiences enjoy. An advantage for the Australian Octet is having “naming rights” as, although the ensemble has a close link with the Melbourne Chamber Orchestra, it can boast of being one of only two professional string octets in the world and the only one in this country.

Its structure – four violins, two violas and two cellos – allowed the Australian Octet to make its debut playing three of what it described as “monuments of the chamber repertoire” and, even more exciting, the first new Australian work for string octet in 20 years. The composer, Richard Mills, is better known for his opera, Batavia, and his appointment as director of Victorian Opera. Mills was at the Octet premiere, having a night off from conducting Traviata – but a late change in the order of the program saw his work played second, after a work for octet by Shostakovich.

The program as presented by Australian Octet at the Recital Centre on May 25 was:

Shostakovich — Two Pieces for String Octet, Op. 11
Richard Mills — Overture for Octet (world premiere season)
Brahms — Quintet in F major, Op. 88
INTERVAL
Enescu — String Octet in C Major, Op.7

Although unusual in having three strong, contrasting works before interval, and just one after it, this program worked well. The Octet, in businesslike black, was greeted by an enthusiastic audience in the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall, violinist William Hennessy instantly recognisable as leader and one of four musicians from the Melbourne Chamber Orchestra.

The first of Shostakovich’s Two Pieces, Prelude, began with a strong and concerted attack from the eight players, with well-controlled dynamics from soft to strongly resonant. Early in the work, there was a sonorous piece for solo viola, with the middle section’s lively involvement of all eight affirming the Octet’s easy sense of balance. Hennessy’s solo was similarly well supported before the spareness of sound resolved with a perfect note in unison.

The Scherzo brought a change of pace, with a focus on the cello to set the rhythm. Shostakovich appeared to play with the idea of the fast pace – with the music suggesting galloping hooves as it thundered to a close. The work was a great illustration of the sound power of eight instruments and, for this alone, was a very good choice to open the concert.

Richard Mills’ Overture for Octet was a contrast in mood, but had its own power. Its structure: Lachrymae, Chorales … Postlude, was a strong hint of what was to come, but nothing could prepare the listener for the outpouring of grief of the first part. Fast, descending scales, while demanding disciplined playing, ironically suggested fierce, unrestrained tears, with the pace continuing as the music settled into a more contrapuntal style. The Octet hardly needed to play anything more to establish their prowess as individual musicians and their cohesiveness as a group. However, Mills skilfully provided the necessary relief after such strong emotion, with a contrasting Chorale. Two violins led with a melody balanced by the harmony provided by the other six players, and the ending was peaceful, with a long, respectful silence before the applause broke out.

Being unfamiliar with the available repertoire for string octets I was interested that the next work was for a quintet. Brahms’ Quintet in F major Op.88 was, of course, far more familiar in structure and sound than the first two works. Notable in this performance were articulation of Brahms’ characteristically rich harmonies and an elegiac second movement in which every instrument seemed to be heard to advantage. A vibrant scherzo (at times exploiting pizzicato sound well) resolved into a slow, solemn and sweet movement, allowing the Australian Octet members to display yet more of their capabilities before, like the preceding works, the Quintet ended with wonderful calm.

We were told Brahms regarded this work as one of his finest, while Shostakovich had described his Octet as “the very best thing I have written”. While both works deserved such fondness, the audience may well have chosen the final work on the program, George Enescu’s String Octet in C Major, Op.7, as their preferred work of the evening. The Australian Octet described it as “a work of magnetic Romantic beauty and startling originality” – and set about demonstrating the truth of those words. The work deserved to be the sole after-interval piece, being almost symphonic in length and making extraordinary demands on all players. All who heard this performance would have to agree that it was a powerful argument for the formation of Australian Octet, with these players in particular. A better debut could hardly have been imagined!