It seems my hedonism know no bounds. Not only did I indulge the distinct pleasure of an ACO concert this particular Sunday afternoon, the very same evening saw me back at the exclusive enclave of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, closed to all, essentially, but Arts Gallery Society members. This time, Emma Matthews and Sydney Omega Ensemble was on the menu, in the resonant Old Courts, following the customary finger sandwiches, guava juice, mineral water and white wines.

The Shepherd on the Rock is another in the Resonate concert series, featuring the music of Louis Spohr (inventor, incidentally, of the violin chin rest), Schubert (after whose Der Hirt Auf Dem Felsen the event was named) and Ibert. These variously implicated the talents of the ever-popular soprano, David Rowden on clarinet, Maria Raspopova on piano, Michael Dixon on horn, Lisa Osmialowski on flute and Huy-Nguyen Bui on violin.

It's hard to know what to say about Emma Matthews that mightn't have been reflected before. Suffice to say, to restate the obvious, hers is a soaring, self-assured coloratura of the highest and finest order, but not only that: she is also a grab interpreter. And so, for example, with the first of Spohr's six songs, Sei Still, Mein Herz, she communicates a palpable sense of the hope that resides, deep in her breast and the quivering fear that is the collateral damage of risking confession of affection, not to mention the heavy, dark dejection of discovering one's hope and affection unrequited. Matthews sings with the utmost clarity, flawless technique and control, but never does her technical perfection compromise the emotive, which she renders achingly poignant.  

The other heroic voice here is that of the clarinet, a sonic expression of the fluctuating fortunes of the heart; by turns, running away with itself, then coming to rest, as rationality makes a brief cameo in its life. Rowden's reading is assertive, but mellifluous, while Raspopova's piano is steadfast.

Zweigesang has all the spritely prettiness you might expect from a song about a little bird in a lilac bush. Here, again, the voice of the clarinet is virtually as prominent as the soprano, a dainty, duetting, nimble nestling. Matthews, meanwhile, shimmers.

In Sehnsucht, the clarinet, now flying like a bird, soars high above, while the lyrics Spohr has so attractively set contemplate the fleeting nature of time and youth; the narrowness of our confines and how wide the world. The reflections may be rather sullen, but the melody puts paid to any temptation towards brooding, counterpointing the introspective with an outgoing, uplifting melody.

Alles Still In Susser Ruh is, essentially, a lullaby; I can imagine no more pleasant manner in which to succumb to slumbers.

Das Heimliche Lied has the clarinet empathising, you might say, with the pensiveness of the vocal, which relates not just a secret song, but secret pains, 'whose lament is never tongued'. It might've been written in 1837, but the human condition, despite the upheavals of socioeconomic, technological and other change, isn't so different that we can't relate to the notion of things, unspoken, if not unspeakable, 'borne deep in the heart'; again, Matthews makes this sublime music more than a merely sensual experience, deepening it by way of her own inveigling investment of emotion.

Finally, Wach Auf! (it might sound like an expletive, but proves rather more poetic) awakens us from our propensity to shy away from the world and the wounds living in it inevitably inflicts, calling us back to the ringing and singing all around. A chirpier tune you couldn't hope for and Matthews ornaments it beautifully; which means, for mine, without too much elaboration. She embodies the distinction between an impressive coloratura and a surpassing one; coloratura, after all, in the wrong hands, can be like the difference between too much chocolate and just enough. At the same time, her lyric lightness affords a surprising quantum of dramatic intensity, as needed. But it's not needed here: her voice dances across the lyric, alongside Rowden's buoyant clarinet, which twitters and warbles throughout.    

Spohr's innovation in transposing the concept of obbligato to chamber music was an inspired one, with exceptionally listenable outcomes. All six lieder in this suite are exquisite and realised optimally by Matthews and ensemble. It's edifying to have Spohr brought back from the dead, while so many of his contemporaries, but not betters, live on. Spohr distinguished himself in multifarious ways. He was, back in the day, a pre-eminent conductor. (One of the most fascinating biographical details appertaining is that he was the first of any note to use a baton.) He was, if not the father of modern violin technique, a close uncle. He held a succession of prominent and influential positions and toured extensively; a veritable rockstar. As well as being san acclaimed violin virtuoso (admired by Queen Vic), his compositional output was vast and as well-regarded: ten symphonies, as many operas; and on it goes. His orchestral and chamber works were considered on a par with Mozart's; fitting, as Mozart was a composer he championed. He was an imposing figure in every possible way, including physical stature: even now, at over six-and-a-half feet, he'd stand head-and-shoulders over many of us. Little wonder he's sometimes referred to as the forgotten master. But, for anyone who'd seek to elevate classical musicians to a pedestal, bear in mind the evidence for Spohr's commercial instincts and pragmatism. The inclusion of a prominent clarinet part in his Sechs Deutsche Lieder wasn't a solely artistic consideration: the commission was negotiated by a clarinettist well-known to the Princess of Sondershausen, the patron. Nonetheless, more Spohr, please.

The ensemble lineup was shuffled a little, with Rowden standing down giving way to Dixon and horn, to present Franz Peter Schubert's Auf Dem Strom, written in his final year, of 1828. Though born a baker's dozen years after Spohr, tragically, Schubert didn't quite make it to thirty-two. Raspopova's piano, Dixon's horn and Matthews' vocal all recall Schubert's reputed modesty: there's an understatement in the composition (which is most likely an homage to Beethoven) that's honoured in the performance. Schubert's selection of the horn, of course, paints from a palette of more sombre shades, in keeping with Rellstab's relating of 'the last, parting kiss'.

Jacques Ibert's Deux Interludes hails from more than a century later and unites Lisa Osmialowski's flute, Huy-Nguyen Bui's violin and Maria Raspopova's piano for Andante Espressivo and Allegro Vivo. The instrumental weave in the fabric of the first movement is as fine as Egyptian cotton. Moorish and Impressionistic colours flavours inform its melancholy, but nothing artificial is added: it has an elegance typical of French music of the period. In the second work, the Spanish essence is undeniable; rhythmically, harmonically and emotionally. Mournful bowing, a slightly husky flute and the ebb and flow of piano imbue a sense of urgent passion, in spite of savoir faire.      

Der Hirt Auf Dem Felsen reintroduces clarinet for a shepherd's lonely song. It was written specifically for one of FP Schubert's most admired sopranos, Anna Milder-Hauptmann, who was hankering for a piece that would showcase both her vocal and theatrical skills, making it very apt for Ms Matthews, who shines so radiantly, in both those respects. Of all the music presented in this programme, it is possibly the most affectingly, achingly beauteous; heart-rending and tear-inducing, before bouncing into a spring step. Matthews transcends even herself, with a ravishing coda.

Resonate 2013 Concert series
The Shepherd on the Rock
Emma Matthews & Sydney Omega Ensemble

Venue: Entrance court | Art Gallery NSW
Date: Sunday 13 October 2013
Time: 7pm – 10pm
Bookings: 02 9225 1878

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