Musica Viva International Concert Season: Sabine Meyer and the Alliage Quintett, Llewellyn Hall, 7pm, Tuesday, March 6, 2018.
Sabine Meyer and the Alliage Quintett gave a surprising concert. Here was arguably the finest classical clarinet soloist of the modern era performing as an ensemble musician. The program was a collection of works designed to be heard as separate musical fairytales under the overarching title of Fantasia. In a sense, it was the Sabina Meyer Big Band – big in sound and tonal colour; bijou in size. As soprano saxophonist Daniel Gauthier quipped in relation to the power of the playing, "sometimes five plus one doesn't equal six". The virtuosity of the ensemble was breathtaking and the arrangements of the great classics such as The Firebird were dazzling, but there was something essential missing from the evening. While Meyer and her colleagues were expert narrators of each fairytale, the organisation of the repertoire didn't unfold as a continuous fantastical journey leading through light and dark, day and night, tension and resolution to the ultimate climax and denouement. The variety of works selected sounded like separate performances linked only by the consistency of the ensemble members rather than any thematic continuity.
Often Gauthier's soprano saxophone assumed leadership of the ensemble, as in the soaring notes of the melodic line in the opening piece – Bernstein's Overture to Candide. Here was all the rhythmic complexity and wild echoes of klezma melodies played to perfection, allowing each of the instruments space to make a statement. Throughout the concert Jang Eun Bae's understated piano accompaniment supported the spectacular trapeze-like daring of the wind musicians.
Paul Dukas' well-loved symphonic scherzo, The Sorcerer's Apprentice, was the evening's highlight. Rainer Schottstadt's inspired arrangement embraced the audience in the essence of wood: it was like listening to the notes from inside the resonating chamber of a gigantic clarinet or saxophone. The musicians clearly enjoyed the drama of the piece, executing the skilfully placed pauses and rhythmic parrying faultlessly.
The two movements from Shostakovich's Five Pieces, Prelude from The Gadfly and Gavotte No. 2 from Ballet Suite No. 3 provided an opportunity for the ensemble to split into trios, with the alto saxophone and clarinet, then the soprano saxophone and clarinet pairing to show off the attributes of these instruments. Scaramouche, famously arranged for Benny Goodman to appease the jazz clarinettist for a commissioned concerto that he loathed, proved a splendid vehicle for Meyer and the Alliage Quintett to show off perfectly aligned flying scales, lyrical passages and a final joyous cacophony in the Brazileira movement.
Igor Stravinsky's Firebird sounded supernaturally majestic in this pared-down arrangement – a tribute to the integrity of the ensemble and in particular, the splendid resonance of Simon Hanrath on tenor saxophone and Sebastian Pottmeier on baritone saxophone. Three short Shostakovich works provided the interlude before the evening's grand finale: Borodin's Polovtsian Dances. The increasing speed of the final three movements from allegro vivo to presto had fingers and lungs functioning at a breathtaking rate, rousing the audience to unequivocal applause.