Chamber Notes – St Cecilia’s Hall

Matthew Hunt, one of Europe’s leading clarinetists, is accompanied by a string quartet from the Scottish Ensemble on their tour of Scotland. They perform three pieces: Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet in B minor, John Luther Adams’ “The Wind In High Places”, and Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet in A Major (the composer’s only piece of its kind). These works fill an hour and a half with beautiful, excellently-played music, and leaves the audience utterly bewitched by the talent of the musicians.

It must first be said that I am by no means an expert in chamber music. Even an amateur, however, can see that these musicians play exquisitely well. The clarinet and the string quartet obviously complement each other wonderfully, filling the performance space with sound. The acoustics lend the music a full-bodied quality, whilst also maintaining a degree of intimacy that the small size of the room lends to the occasion. The audience’s proximity to the musicians means that we can hear them draw breath, or the rustle of their clothing, and this, rather than distracting from the music, adds a certain convivial charm to the performance.

The clarinet is a favourite instrument of mine, thanks to its smooth and lilting sound. Hunt’s mastery of his instrument is clear, as he takes it through the sinuous melodies of Brahms’ quintet, a piece that highlights the clarinet’s ability to be both jubilant and mournful. It is a colourful, often mysterious instrument, whose notes bloom like night flowers, or take flight like strange birds – and this is perfectly reflected in Hunt’s playing.

That the musicians number only five allows the audience to pick out the individual voices of each instrument. Special mention must be given to Alison Lawrance on the cello, and Jane Atkins on the viola, for their incredible sensitivity and dexterity whilst playing such complicated melodies. The chosen pieces also suit the setting very well, turning the music into a sort of wordless conversation whereby Hunt’s clarinet plays phrases to which the strings answer, which speaks to that universality of music that it requires no language to be understood.

Indeed, the pieces allow the mind to wander, its mood guided by the musicians’ playing. By moments joyful, by others pessimistic, Brahms’ and Mozart’s music remains timelessly enjoyable. The Adams piece is far more recent – written in 2011 – and is performed by the strings only. As violinist Jonathan Morton explained, Adams used the monumental landscapes of Alaska to inspire his music, and this is evident in “The Wind In High Places”. Played entirely using natural harmonics and open strings, it creates an almost tentative effect, as if the musicians are persuading their strings to play. It is also played very quietly, which demonstrates the skill of the strings, whilst weaving the character and sound of winds chasing each other around mountaintops.

One of my favourite aspects of the performance was watching how entranced the musicians were by their own playing. At the end of each movement, Hunt stood in rapture, seeming unwilling to allow the last note to fade. The quartet allowed the music to dance through them, rising and falling with their instruments, weaving through the air as if trying to catch the melody as it flew past.

This was truly a wonderful way to spend an evening. It seems almost nonsensical to ascribe a star rating to performances of chamber music, as we cannot critique the long-dead German and Austrian composers – yet it must be done, and I delightedly give it five stars.

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