I was particularly looking forward to this concert in the “Faces of our Orchestras” series organized by Chris Howlett as part of the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall initiative. Here was the Mozart clarinet quintet, probably my favourite musical work, combined with Prokofiev’s rarely-heard Overture on Hebrew Themes. The performers were leading members of the MSO: David Thomas (clarinet), Tair Khisambeev and Freya Franzen (violins), Fiona Sargent (viola) and Rohan de Korte (cello), joined by Elyane Lassaude (piano) for the Prokofiev.
I did however wonder how on earth I was going to “review” the Mozart. It is a work I have known since my childhood (I see I bought my Eulenburg score of it in 1964); I have heard it countless times performed by all sorts of ensembles – would I be able to say anything interesting, useful, insightful? I was also aware of the issues discussed by Susan Tomes (of Domus fame) in her 2001 essay “A Puzzling Schubert Quintet” in which she is rather scathing about professional orchestral musicians getting together to play chamber music.
Then there is the quintet itself – what exactly is it? Is it a work for five musicians performing as equals, or is it, as Dr Floyd used to describe it in his radio program all those years ago, “a miniature clarionet (sic) concerto”? I used to be in the first camp but these days I feel that Mozart was responding to Anton Stadler’s commission by pushing it towards being a showpiece for the instrument, with the four strings being partners but often in the background.
The live-streamed performance from the Athenaeum Theatre was not without some issues, but was it was very much a “live” event with performers responding not just to the music itself but also to the circumstances of the concert. The overall outcome was very satisfying with strong and sensitive playing by all the players and a good sense of ensemble. Of course the clarinet (basset clarinet in this case) tended to dominate, but probably no more than Mozart intended. The strings shone on the occasions available to them – I always look forward to the prominent viola part in the third variation of the last movement, and I was not disappointed.
If I can be permitted a minor gripe; I had some concerns about the camera placement. In earlier concerts I had watched in the series the camera-work gave fairly equal treatment to the performers. In the Mozart one camera was fixed on David Thomas and much of the performance used just this camera, perhaps over-emphasizing that instrument’s role. It was particularly noticeable in the second theme of the slow movement, possibly one of the most moving passages in all music, in which the clarinet and violin engage in an extended and elegiac duet. The out-of-sight Tair’s part in the dialogue had the impression of being somewhat off-stage.
It was wonderful to hear the Prokofiev overture, for me probably the first time. The melodies he used are mostly familiar from other works, but his treatment of them was refreshingly deft and colourful. The performance was excellent, with the klezmer-like flavour Gordon Kerry mentioned in the program notes well to the fore. This time the networked audience had a better view of the performers, which was appropriate as each player had several highlighted passages. I hope we can hear this work again.
I was going conclude this review by putting on my retired network specialist hat and mentioning that the streamed broadcast suffered from several dropouts, including one that lost us the period from the closing passages of the Mozart through to the opening of the Prokofiev. To me it was a server synchronization issue, which is an inherent problem with live streaming. As I was writing the review an email arrived from Chris Howlett commenting on the problem and advising of the building of a new server. We all hope this fixes things.