The recent concert auspiced by the Melbourne Chamber Orchestra and featuring the Australian Octet raised an interesting question: when is an octet not an octet? The answer was given in several different forms in this concert; when it’s a sextet, quintet or quartet. So well co-coordinated were the players in this recent performance that it seems the Australian Octet is onto something with its usual cohort of eight. Where other ensembles look to add to their number for performances of particular works, the Octet can simply put forward the required balance of instruments from among its members, thereby guaranteeing that the players are very familiar with each other’s style.
The final work nevertheless had the honour of being the title work in this concert. This was Schubert’s String Quartet in C major D956, a work often found on the concert programs of the finest quartets. But there was much to enjoy in the first half of the concert. In particular there was a premiere of work by Graeme Koehne, for string sextet, entitled Nevermore. The newest work on the program it nevertheless had a conventional structure. Bass and cello led the way and gradually the other instruments joined in, paving the way for leader William Hennessy. At first the sound was spare, then increasingly romantic with a gentle rocking sound. Soon there was a beautiful solo for Hennessy. While the cello pizzicato gave a rather syncopated rhythm to the piece, the pattern was maintained through a crescendo with echoing of the theme in all instruments. The minor key lent the music a nostalgic, even sorrowing sound.
A change of rhythm, and a little faster tempo, indicated a new subject, still melodic with pauses and slowing. Next, a new movement or reprise with strong bowing from all with the cello momentarily having the melody until a peaceful interlude led to a quiet ending. This accessible work was a welcome introduction to the program for the evening.
As Neville Marriner, the patron of Melbourne Chamber Orchestra (but forever thought of in context of his iconic Academy of St Martin’s in the Fields), had died in the preceding week, leader William Hennessy gave an emotional speech about his association with the great man. The next work, by Dvorak, was, he said, a tribute to Marriner and thanks for his great support over many years. The String Sextet in A major Op 48 proved to be a mellow work and yet another vehicle for the strengths of this ensemble. The first movement Allegro was not particularly fast and, like the whole work, had dance music never very far away. As the cello solo was heard against a more spirited tempo a reprise built in intensity and rich harmony. After the almost obligatory Dumka (but no less enjoyable for that!) came the Furiant, which lived up to its name, and then the work settled to a theme and variations to end. The ensemble played with an obvious ease and affection for the work, something that carried through to its performance of the major work of the afternoon, Schubert’s String Quintet in C major D956.
Long, lingering notes and a sweetness of harmony were evident from the beginning and, indeed, were a fair introduction to the work. Also of interest was the less usual addition of a second cello, particularly when playing a duet with the other. The second movement saw an equally charming duet, between Hennessy and cellist Josephine Vains, introducing an adagio of great sweetness; a duet, which recurred near the end of a movement that had also been animated, employing pizzicato to great effect.
The third movement, Scherzo, threw out a challenge in tempo, not just to the first violin, but to all players – and it was well met. There was no rest in the Finale – Allegretto – whose contrasts were of interest for the music’s sake, but also allowed for a final appreciation of the performers of this mighty work.
Musicians of Australian Octet:
Violin: William Hennessy (director), Markiyan Melnychenko, Madeleine Jevons, Robin Wilson
Viola: Tobias Breider, Merewyn Bramble
Cello: Paul Ghica, Josephine Vains
Editor’s Notes: (i) The picture is of the late Sir Neville Marriner, the patron of Melbourne Chamber Orchestra (and founder of the Academy of St Martin’s in the Fields).
(ii) Cellist Josephine Vains is a writer and reviewer for Classic Melbourne. This fact has no bearing on this review, except that Josephine herself turned down our offer of reviewer’s tickets “because I’m actually playing in it!”)