Concert Reviews

Review of Gildas Quartet with Jack McNeill, clarinet – Saturday 24th October

By Donald Judge

It was a day when many were adjusting to life in higher tiers due to Covid-19. A day when thousands more worldwide were infected or died. A day when debate still raged about whether our poorest children should have free meals over half-term. A day when the US Presidential election and the uncertainties of Brexit moved inexorably closer. A day further darkened by grey skies and heavy rain. A day when five musicians could hardly believe they were on their way to Bollington to play together for the first time in over seven months. 

We don’t live in normal times. We’re forced to evaluate everything about life and what is important or possible. Some might think music would be the last thing to concern us. But it’s a necessity as old as humankind itself. Cave dwellers turned skin and bone into instruments and made images of the animals that also provided tools, clothing and food. As food for the mind and the soul, music has always flourished, even clandestinely. Our music-making and listening may be different in late 2020, but if anything it’s more intense, more treasured by those touched by it. Through the wonders of technology, more of us could already hear Haydn or Brahms than the composers ever dreamed of – and Brahms was among the first whose playing was recorded for posterity, years before radio was invented. More can now enjoy live-streamed events, with vision as well as sound, than could ever attend them in person.

An audience member once emerged at the interval of a Bollington Chamber Concert commenting, What an extraordinary piece! He meant the contemporary work, but it could equally have applied to whichever Haydn quartet started the programme. Watching and listening on Saturday, it wasn’t hard to imagine the surprise and delight felt by those who first heard op 76 no 1. The innovation, quirkiness, forays into extreme keys (and altitudes on first violin!), unexpected phrase lengths, the wicked sense of humour and the sheer unpredictability were all perfectly captured by the Gildas Quartet. No one would have guessed they hadn’t been performing regularly in public for so long.

Enter a fifth player, clarinettist Jack McNeill, to speak movingly about his rediscovery of the county of his birth and its natural beauty, before a work in which Brahms rediscovered his muse. Composers seldom retire: they’re more likely, as Mozart and Mahler, to die leaving work for others to complete. Rossini lapsed into composition during his new career as a gourmand, with the “sins of my old age.” At 57, Brahms had endured enough musical and personal turmoil, and just wished to enjoy the rest of his life carefree and at peace – though he did “walk out” with a mezzo-soprano 30 years his junior. Unlike Leoš Janáček’s unrequited passion for a young singer, it was the purely musical attributes of clarinettist Richard Mühlfeld that inspired Brahms’ late flowering. The Quintet abounds in heartfelt and characteristic melodies from the composer who signed an autograph, for the wife of his friend Johann Strauss II, with a few notes of the Blue Danube Waltz, adding unfortunately not composed by Johannes Brahms. That (mostly) very serious composer captures the very essence of the clarinet, including the sounds it might make in a Hungarian Gypsy band, in a work of both complex classical rigour and romantic luxuriance. Whatever other live music was played on Saturday evening, surely nothing surpassed this deeply felt performance, alert to every nuance, and beautifully balanced. A true chamber music partnership that allowed individual players and the composer to shine. 

Brahms left us on a very sombre note, with echoes of the opening music and hushed minor key chords, so what could follow it? The perfect answer was part of a clarinet quintet by a contemporary composer, touchingly the last piece the musicians had performed together in March. It’s as wild, exhilarating and intriguing as any Eastern European folk band that may have inspired Haydn or Brahms, and which thrive to this day. But the inspiration for composer David Bruce was the dark days of Apartheid in South Africa, when black gold miners, forbidden to talk, learned to communicate with their gumboots and the chains that bound them. Music not only provides an escape from the grim realities of life, but can alert us to them. Here was a reminder not only of man’s inhumanity to man, but of human resourcefulness and resilience. The players, spot on in performance, and taking their bows to silence, can rest assured that the audience was applauding and stamping its feet in approval and gratitude. 

Over more than 30 years, many young quartets have appeared at Bollington Chamber Concerts and gone on to national and international fame. Some, like the Gildas, have happily returned, while others, such as the Sorrels, have sadly disbanded. It’s to be hoped that before too long, audiences will once again refresh themselves and chat face to face in the bar the Sorrels generously helped to refurbish with a special concert. But before then, their cellist – still Helen Thatcher despite the caption renaming her Heather – will return with, for the first time, guitarist Craig Ogden,. not only an internationally acclaimed virtuoso performer, but a teacher and inspiration at Chetham’s and the RNCM. It means there won’t be six players at the next concert (anyone thinking Brahms again?), or seven the next (thinking Beethoven or Saint-Saens) and then eight (Mendelssohn, Schubert or Stravinsky.) Perhaps that’s for the future! But there are even more concerts than usual this season, a miracle of vision and determination by the volunteers who organise it. It’s a costly and risky venture: please donate if you can to help ensure it continues.