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Alan Cooper Reviews: Sacconi Quartet and Ruth Wall, harp

BEN HANCOX: First violin
HANNAH DAWSON: Second violin
ROBIN ASHWELL: Viola
CARA BERRIDGE: Cello
RUTH WALL: Harp

Saturday, 29 October 2016

The combination of string quartet and harp works spectacularly well, better even than piano and quartet. This was the scoring of both outer pieces at Saturday’s Lunchbreak Concert bringing together virtuoso harpist, Ruth Wall, a soundfestival regular, with the Sacconi String Quartet. The harp is more intimately absorbed into the quartet than the piano, which having a bolder sound, tends to stand apart.
This made a delicious sound blend in the opening piece of the concert, Cantilena & Scherzo for harp and string quartet by Gian Carlo Menotti. Menotti was born in Italy and kept his Italian citizenship after he moved to the USA where his fellow students at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music were Leonard Bernstein and Samuel Barber. Those names would suggest that Menotti remained very much a tonal composer and many people will be familiar with his warmly tonal opera Amahl and the Night Visitors which has been performed at Haddo. In his later years, Menotti took up residence in the village of Gifford in East Lothian, so should we call him an Italian, American or Scottish composer?

Cantilena is defined as “the part carrying the melody in a composition” and this part of the first piece was indeed warmly melodic with deliciously smooth playing from the strings and the harp adding depth to the blend. The Scherzo section was lively yet still had attractive warmth and the Cantilena returned to round off the work.

The second piece in the programme was for the string quartet alone. It was entitled String and was by Graham Fitkin who was in the audience and who gave a very helpful pre-concert talk about his music. String had a simple short theme on which complexities in the music were built. This was not quite minimalism although the influence of that school was clear to be heard. This theme first stated in pizzicato form was flung from one instrument to another both in pizzicato and bowed form building up a quite complex patterning. Later on the first violin brought in a new theme which was really a variation of the first. It was here especially that the energy and dynamism of Fitkin’s music which had been mentioned by Ben Hancox became particularly evident.

The next two short pieces were for solo harp: the FirstInterlude and Sonata 5 by John Cage. These pieces were originally composed for “prepared” piano so in transposing them to harp, Ruth Wall had to make the appropriate preparations to her instrument. This involved blue tack, and various clips and pins. It took several minutes to arrange so Graham Fitkin gave another very helpful talk, this time on the music of John Cage. The Sonata 5 was surprisingly short. Possible something else with which Cage could surprise his audience. The harp playing itself was virtuosic with lots of notes especially on the upper register of the instrument. The sounds produced reminded me of an African instrument called the Kalimba or thumb piano. African instruments were indeed one of the centres of interest for Cage.
The final piece was the World Première of a new piece for harp and string quartet by Graham Fitkin and entitled Recur. The immediacy, energy and dynamism mentioned by Ben Hancox were all there. Since the harp uses mostly plucked strings, Fitkin decided to steer the quartet towards its more percussive sound palette. There was much use of pizzicato of course, noticing that pizzicato is not just one thing, it has several kinds. There was also the use of con legno where the wooden part of the bow hits the strings and spicatto which I prefer to call bouncy bow. Rhythm was at the core of this piece although there were more gentle bowed sections. The music really hotted up at the end and the overall rhythm that powered the piece would definitely have been called “funky” by Leonard Bernstein if he had been around to hear it. I certainly enjoyed this piece every bit as much as the Menotti and I think the rest of the audience did as well.

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