Sacconi Quartet with Robert Plane 10 Oct 2016
12 October 2016By Tim Robinson
Mozart - String Quartet in D K 499 "Hofmeister"
York Bowen - Phantasy Quintet for Bass Clarinet and Strings
Brahms - Clarinet Quintet Op 115
It comes to something when you turn up to a concert on time (miraculously 10 minutes early) and the only seats left are in the middle of the front row. Front row tickets carry much cache and there are certainly plusses – but a few minuses too. To get the minuses over – the sound is almost too close and hasn’t had time to breathe before it reaches your ears, and, one almost feels a little voyeuristic at being quite so close to the musicians. That said, seeing how four or five players make music together apparently without a leader (let alone conductor) is wondrous. It must be intuitive – a sixth sense perhaps.
Now to the music. Mozart first. Written in Vienna in 1786, the composer was 30, with five years more for music to pour out of him before his early death. This is mature Mozart. I call the Hofmeister the quartet of many (and more) repeated notes. The piece played badly is especially dull – that is the nature of repeated notes. But the Sacconi String Quartet are not capable of being dull. Entrances were always strong and the repeated notes which are so much part of the first subject were either playful or provided the impetus to move on to the next phrase. This Mozart quartet is unusual in that is highly contained and less exuberant than we might expect. The Sacconi were clearly very comfortable with this piece - it seemed like an old companion. This appeared especially true in the slow movement – the instrumentalists were like old friends enjoying being together.
Robert Plane spoke enthusiastically for York Bowen’s Phantasy Quintet and for the much neglected bass clarinet. There are few pieces in which I can’t find something to like. I appreciated the lovely textures and colours of the lower notes of this instrument mixing with the strings. But this piece (to my ear) didn’t know whether it was English rhapsody or German contrapuntal discourse – in other words it didn’t seem to know where it was going or what it was for. This is no criticism of the superb playing and I am aware that others in the audience enjoyed the work. For me it was just lacking in locus or identity.
Safer territory in Brahm’s wonderful Clarinet Quintet with its shimmering textures and beautiful melodies. This was a journey of yearning and supplication in the opening theme of the first movement, contrasted with a briefly declamatory second subject. The opening theme is present throughout the quintet and offers a sense of homecoming even in the more remote corners. The sorrowful end of the first movement segues seamlessly to the mystical slow movement with the triplets in underparts almost undermining the syncopated relationship between the clarinet and first violin. This is extraordinarily difficult to pull off – to say that tonight’s musicians were effortless in their delivery would be to insult their exquisite sense of what this most inward looking music is. After a rather joyful beginning to the last movement the final chords of are tragic and unfinished.
An encore of an arrangement of Finzi’s third bagatelle for clarinet and piano was played. Programming is always a matter of judgement but I wasn’t convinced that this short cheerful offering was the right call after forty minutes of Brahms’ innermost thoughts.
That said this was another wonderful evening and the beginning of a very promising season. The chancel was packed by a hugely appreciative (and growing) audience.
Darlington & Stockton Times
For the Cathedral Concert Society’s opening recital the Sacconi Quartet made a welcome return visit, this time with clarinettist Robert Plane as guest.
They began however with Mozart’s String Quartet, No. 20, K499 which they had played in Darlington a couple of days earlier. Although obviously a similar performance it was interesting to hear it in the rather different acoustic of the Cathedral Quire with its spectacularly high roof. Curiously it seemed easier to pick out the individual instruments which, at least from my seat near the front, had a certain bloom around them.
Then Robert Plane joined them for a performance of York Bowen’s Phantasy Quintet for Bass Clarinet and Strings, Op. 90. Although one naturally has a tendency to follow the clarinet line it was interesting to hear how often it combined with the strings adding a depth and colour to the ensemble sound. This was such an eloquent and persuasive performance one wonders why it has been neglected for so long.
In Brahms’ Quintet for Clarinet and Strings, Op. 115 once again Plane integrated his clarinet, shading his playing so that he never dominated his colleagues even in the second movement where the strings were muted. Every movement was full of interest with the final one particularly impressive with its frequently changing moods but with an underlying sadness emerging now and then.