Clouds Harp Quartet

Sunderland Minster

4 September 2015

Typical. You wait two years for a Clouds harp quartet concert and then two come along together.

After a nightmare journey back from Manchester, I was in Sunderland Minster for the second concert of the day by the quartet. And much as I enjoyed the performance in Manchester, this one was better in all respects.

First, the setting. The Minster is a beautiful setting, of course. But more importantly, it sounds beautiful. The acoustics let the music wrap itself around you, let you hear the tiniest whispered note at perfect volume. It's stunning.

And I was sitting in a much better place, not right at the front but pretty close and with sight lines that let me see all eight hands perfectly the whole time. Which is a big factor when you want to follow exactly who is making which sound at which time.

The performances were, just as in Manchester, flawless. It hardly seems worth noting that, as you would expect professional musicians of this quality to play perfectly every time. But it nevertheless boggles my mind that they can play music of this complexity, without scores, not just individually but as a unit working in perfect synchronisation, and never put a single finger wrong in an hour and a half of playing. I don't understand musicians, I really don't. They're completely different from the rest of us.

The set is much as in Manchester, but extended. So we still open with the short Pinus Sylvestris and still get the long (20–30 minute) suites Clouds and Water.

To this is added the shortish (about eight minute) Interstellar Cloud. It's another amazing composition, almost pure minimalism, with each harpist seeming to play very simple melodic content, which then combines to produce something much greater than the sum of the parts. The quartet also manage some slightly theatrical staging for it, with each harpist entering in turn both musically and literally.

And finally another short piece, the poignant Dear Mother, to finish off.

No encore, but by my reckoning they have played everything they could have from their original repertoire and it worked to leave it there rather than add another random classical piece just to pad the time out. Though I wouldn't have complained. And I would have sat through another run-through of Clouds if they'd wanted to play it again.

The only disappointing thing about the whole evening is that audience was criminally small. Less than 50 people, maybe less than 30, when this group deserves to be filling the Sage. They have something completely unique — yes, I know there is at least one other harp quartet in the country, but I don't believe there's anyone composing and playing contemporary classical music that sounds anything like this. More people need to hear it.

Best concert I've ever seen.