Clouds Harp Quartet

Sunderland Minster

31 July 2011

Surprise gig of the year for me so far has been the Clouds Harp Quartet in Sunderland Minster on Sunday.

Surprise because I had no clue what to expect. I saw a flyer in a newsagent's window and thought, well, for £5 it's worth a chance. I didn't even know there was any repertoire for four harps, so I literally had no clue what (or even what style) I would be hearing.

Well, to give an idea of the style, the repertoire in the first half of the programme included:

Fantaisie sur un theme de l'opera Eugene Onegin by Tchaikovsky, arranged for solo harp by Ekaterina Walter-Kune.

Fugue from Violin Sonata No. 1 by J.S. Bach, transcribed for harp by Marcel Grandjany.

Serenade Standchden by Schubert, transcribed for harp by John Thomas, arranged for two harps.

Plus a couple of short modern pieces by Esther Swift, a jazz-like piece by Bernard Andres, and a Burns song, Ae Fond Kiss, arranged by Esther Swift. And a local folk song, Waters of Tyne, arranged by... one of the harpists.

The pieces were played as solos, duets, and the Burns piece and folk song by all four harpists.

So far so good. You know I'm no purist — I'm quite happy for a concert to mix classical, jazz and folk music. I love the sound of a concert harp, and hearing four of them, especially in the acoustic of Sunderland Minster, was... well, excuse the cliché, but... heavenly.

During the interval, the musicians invited the audience to come up and see the harps close up, and were happy to answer questions and demonstrate techniques, which was very cool.

The harpists (Elfair Dyer, Rebecca Mills, Esther Swift and Angelina Warburton) are all recent graduates from RNCM and this was the last date of a short tour to promote a CD they have just recorded together. And so the content of the CD, a quartet written by Esther Swift, formed the second half of the concert.

I'm struggling to come up with a way to describe the piece. It's for four harps (obviously) and is in five movements, lasting approximately 30 minutes (though this apparently varies as there are improvisational elements in the central movements). It's modern-sounding but though it includes unconventional playing techniques such as tapping on the soundboard in various ways and slapping the strings with the palm of the hand, it's melodic enough that I don't think it would upset people who prefer their music to have a more traditional sound, and it seems heavily built around a small number of recurring themes... hmm... this is probably a poor analogy, but if Steve Reich was to write music for four harps I imagine it might sound something like this. That's the best description I can manage.

But all that's irrelevant. What really matters is that I was entertained, impressed, and moved by the beauty and the intricacy of the music these four young people were making. Seriously one of the best gigs I've experienced, and if I ever get the chance to see this quartet again I would jump at it.

Sadly this was the last date of their short tour and I have no idea if the quartet will continue playing together. I mean, there really can’t be that much repertoire for four harps...