Clouds Harp Quartet

Bridgewater Hall, Manchester

4 September 2015

I'm wondering if it was worth coming. I had to get up much too early to get a train here. And Manchester isn't really my favourite place to visit (sorry, Manchester). And despite getting here 20 minutes early, I found the place so packed that I struggled to find a seat and ended up in a really bad one with almost zero visibility of anything except Rebecca Mills' left arm. And I've got a cold, so I'm overdosing on Fisherman's Friends (yum) to try to avoid coughing through the concert. And if the quartet had announced tonight's Sunderland gig before announcing this one, I wouldn't have needed to come 150 miles to see them here at all.

So I'm feeling a bit grumpy and wondering if lunchtime concerts are really such a great thing after all. Why am I here?

Then I look in the programme I've been given and, bizarrely, find this quote:

"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." David Meadows

And that's why I'm here, of course. Because the Clouds Harp Quartet don't play together very often and are seriously worth jumping at when they do.

So was it worth it this time?

Oh yes. Even though this was a short gig (only an hour, but that seems quite fair for a free concert) they played exactly what I had come to hear. First a short piece, Pinus Sylvestris, as a warm up, so to speak, and then the two long suites, Clouds and Water; all pieces written by the quartet's Esther Swift.

As the quartet came on stage, a lady behind me said "This is music that will put you to sleep." Obviously her idea of what a harp can do is completely different from Esther Swift's idea of what a harp can do. There's no way this music can put you to sleep. It demands too much concentration. Pinus Sylvestris is a good illustration of what the music is like: short snatches of melody tripping over themselves in a jumble of complexity. It's a characteristic style that's carried through to the longer pieces, but Clouds goes one further by adding percussion (tapping on the harp's soundbox) and then Water tops that by adding in sounds that I suspect very few in the audience ever imagined a harp could produce. (It's quite funny to see everybody craning their necks to see what's making the distorted sound in the fourth movement of Water. I'm just sitting there smugly thinking, "Oh yes, wire coat hanger wound through the strings.")

So. Yes. Amazing music. But then I knew it would be. This is the fourth time I've seen them live, and I'm also very familiar with the music on CD. But that doesn't stop it being extraordinary. And because so much of it is improvised I've never actually heard the exact same music twice — yes, I really can hear an evolution in the way Clouds, in particular, is played. It's extraordinary. Contemporary classical music often falls into one of two types: either too clever for its own good so I can't understand what's going on, or so tritely tuneful that there's no depth to hold my interest. Esther Swift's music straddles both positions without falling into either trap: marvellously complex and inventive, while still beautifully melodic.

Worth coming 150 miles to see? Oh yes. Worth seeing twice in one day? I would jump at the chance.

Best concert I've ever seen? Ask me after tonight's concert!

My only reservation about the whole thing? I'm really not famous enough to quote!