The Solaris Quartet with Katherine Spencer – 23rd April

Alan Mills
In Nomine *
David Matthews
String Quartet No.6
Geoffrey Palmer
Angel Music *
James Francis Brown
String Trio
Peter Fribbins
Clarinet Quintet *

Solaris Quartet
[Mark Wilson & Neil McTaggart (violins)
Morgan Goff (viola)
Nick Allen (cello)]
with Katherine Spencer (clarinet)

* First performance

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 23 April, 2002
Venue: Purcell Room, London

There was little to frighten the horses here; it was almost as if the twentieth-century had never happened.

An air of civility links these composers, so too various degrees of undisguised derivation. There was nothing more economic than David Matthews’s Sixth Quartet, the heart of this three-movement, 15-minute work being an elegiac ’in memoriam’ slow movement that left nerves unexposed; perhaps the very integrity of Matthews’s craft is also its undoing; the ’Finale’ owes something to Tippett.

Alan Mills’s In Nomine (for string trio) bestrides the ages by borrowing from the “Fitzwilliam Virginal Book”. These quotes peer through the centuries just as in Vaughan Williams (but not on his level). Hindemith (in ’Gebrauchsmusik’ mode) and the trenchancy of Robert Simpson combine for a web of contrapuntal dexterity – but with the distinction of neither.

Suspect intonation and uncertain ensemble did not help Mills’s cause, and possibly made Geoffrey Palmer’s Angel Music (clarinet quintet) seem longer than 16 minutes – English Hymnal, VW’s Lark Ascending and Delius’s Cuckoo (if you use Delian harmony and introduce a clarinet…) come together but have their wings clipped by recherché quarter-tones.

The second half found the performers altogether more confident. The best (and longest) piece was the 22-minute String Trio of James Francis Brown, a mix of Stravinsky neo-classicism, Beethovenian strength and Mozartian grace; a sonata-form movement followed by a set of variations. There’s an appreciable craft and imagination to Brown’s music and a warm communication that makes this work one to return to, and a wish to hear more of Brown’s music.

Bartókian nervous intensity and scurrying (the world of the Fourth and Fifth Quartets) informs the first two movements of Peter Fribbins’s Clarinet Quintet, the ’Trio’ of the second movement ’Scherzo’ especially memorable for its wistful expression. The more piercing E flat clarinet is used for the remaining movements, a shadowy, slender ’Interlude’ that moves seamlessly into the final ’Lento’ that reviews previous material, somewhat nebulously.

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