Above – Ensemble Q. Cover – Natsuko Yoshimoto, Anne Horton, Paul Dean, Imants Larsens and Trish Dean. Photos – Darren Thomas

In its scant 6 years of existence, Paul and Trish Dean’s Ensemble Q has carved out an identity as a chamber ensemble of the highest standard, fearlessly delving into unusual repertoire. Its concert The Dinner Party was a step further, even for them – a brilliant idea carried out with great panache.

The idea was this. In 1906 Strass’ first opera Salome received its Austrian premiere in the city of Graz. It had been performed a few months earlier in Munich, and had been received with outrage, partly for its acerbic musical language but mainly on account of Oscar Wilde’s shocking portrayal of Salome’s lust for John the Baptist, which is the core of the plot. Vienna threw up its collective hands in horror, so Strauss arranged for performances in Graz.

At that time Strauss was the most successful composer in Vienna, and so the opening night was attended by a galaxy of contemporary musicians, several of whom went out to dinner afterwards. These were a very interesting cross-section of the state of musical composition in Europe at the time, the period when the hyperbole of expressionism was about to crash into the spare, confronting textures of atonality. The dinner guests included Schoenberg, his pupils Berg and Webern, his brother-in-law Zemlinsky, Mahler, Strauss himself – and, more surprisingly, Puccini, who is reported to have said he was there to check out the competition in German operatic composition.

Ensemble Q took this event, and presented a concert including music by all seven of these composers. They went further – they presented Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer in a chamber arrangement by Schoenberg (adapted by the co-director of Q, Trish Dean). And in QPAC’s concert hall in its more intimate, reverse, mode, they included a dinner table, with plenty of bottles of Sekt, at which sat some of the performers who were not involved in particular pieces. Performers thus became audience, which of course made us in the audience feel in very good company. Huw Jones, the oboist, who was only in one piece (Zemlinsky’s Humoresque) availed himself generously of the Sekt.

The choice of pieces was fascinating. Schoenberg’s Sechs kleine Klavierstucke opened the program, played with deep lyricism by Daniel de Borah. It was followed by a gorgeous string quartet by Puccini, Crisantemi, which showed traces of Tristan in a couple of passages. Then followed that non plus ultra of pointillistic pre-serialism, Webern’s Three pieces for  Cello and Piano, for which Trish Dean joined de Borah. I found myself hanging onto every one of its very few notes. Light relief followed, in the shape of Zemlinsky’s Humoresque for wind quintet, one of the best-scored pieces for wind quintet I have ever heard. It was amazing to hear Berg’s Four pieces for clarinet and piano after the Webern – they are miniatures, but they sounded lush and almost prolix in the hands of Paul Dean and de Borah.

The first half finished with Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer. Schoenberg, whose arrangement Trish Dean used as the basis of this performance, professed a great love of the music of the 19th century, on which he resolutely turned his back by inventing the twelve-tone method of composition. He made several arrangements of 18th and 19th century pieces, including one of Brahms’ first piano quartet for orchestra, which I personally cannot stand. Schoenberg distorts and exaggerates the expressive side of Brahms’ music so that the discreet subtlety on which his music relies for so much of its charm completely disappears. It seemed to me that the arrangement of Mahler’s cycle did a corresponding thing, exaggerating the sparseness of Mahler’s scoring to the extent that the music seemed discontinuous, indeed very like Schoenberg’s own music. I found the inclusion of a piano anathema to Mahler’s exquisite filigree scoring; and further, that the four wind instruments overpowered the strings, always the expressive core of Mahler’s orchestration. However, the performance was wholly redeemed by Shaun Brown’s fabulous delivery of the vocal line. I have never before, either live or in recording, been able to hear all the words of these songs. They are not grateful to sing, being tortured expositions of a very young disappointed love, but Brown inhabited the music with such deep authenticity of expression that the audience as a whole was left gasping.

In the interval, members of the audience who had purchased a special The Dinner Party interval package where given the opportunity to share bubbly with the artists, a lovely touch. 

The second half of the concert was devoted to two works by the composer of Salome himself. First, a piano quartet, written when Strauss was a student. This is an enormous four-movement work, in many places resembling a sketch for a piano concerto. I had recently heard Ensemble Q play the Tchaikowsky piano trio, another work which steps over the boundary between chamber music and piano concerto, and de Borah was magnificent in both pieces, not just in the enormous sound he is capable of but perhaps even more in the delicacy of very fast, soft, un-pedalled passages.

The final piece was an arrangement of Strauss’ much-loved Till Eulenspiegel – not only an arrangement but also a sort of Reader’s Digest version, cutting the music down from 15 minutes to perhaps 7 or 8 as well as reducing the scoring from 100 players to just 5. These five included a double bass, played here by Phoebe Russell, who had a wonderful time playing what must be the most interesting part for double bass in all chamber music.

I very much look forward to future such programs from Ensemble Q. They flagged two possibilities in the program notes – the first performance of Tristan und Isolde in 1865, and the notorious premiere of The Rite of Spring in 1913. I can’t wait!

Event details

Ensemble Q presents
The Dinner Party

Venue: Concert Hall | QPAC
Dates: 8 Oct 2023
Tickets: $90 – $75
Bookings: www.qpac.com.au

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