Manchester Camerata – Tuesday 2nd May 2023 at the Hall for Cornwall, Truro

Eight talented musicians gave us a varied programme starting with a brand new composition from Paul Saggers, moving on to Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet and finishing with Mendelssohn’s String Octet.

The world premiere of Saggers’ Dear Nan is a musical depiction of the composer’s beloved grandmother’s journey through the different stages of dementia. The piece begins with galloping rhythms threaded through with broad optimistic passages that together give an impression of the joyfulness of Nan’s personality. Even this has a few sinister moments from repeated notes in the lower strings which suggests the disease lurking in the background. Soon the music contrasts with alternate quicker and slower passages which show the essential joyfulness of Nan pierced by moments of anxiety, as if her normal cheerful character is breaking down. The third theme is a beautiful melody representing the slowing down of that busy brain.

Throughout, the clarinet, played by Fiona Cross, acts as a solo voice, representing the questioning mind or soul of Nan herself as she wonders what is happening to her. The slowing down of her brain is emphasised in the final stages by long sustained notes which finally arrive at a full stop.

Having not so long ago lost my mother to dementia, I found this piece very moving and as accurate a musical picture of the terrible dissolution of human personality caused by Alzheimers as can be shown through the medium of music. It was interesting to read in the programmme that work with dementia patients is a large part of the community work that this musical group undertake in Manchester.
Paul Saggers introduced his piece to the audience as he was born and brought up here in Cornwall, cutting his musical teeth in the local brassbands as a cornet player, which is why the world premiere occurred here. I look forward to hearing more of his music.

The second piece on the programme was Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet in A major, K.581, a piece of music so familiar that one finds oneself humming the tunes in the head along with the players. Of course hearing something live brings a new sparkle of life to even the most familiar music and so it was here.
The piece was a late work from Mozart, written just before the similarly famous Clarinet Concerto. The clarinet as an instrument was discovered late by the composer, who fell in love with it when he heard the playing of Anton Stadler, the virtuoso of his day. Originally it was written for the older basset version of the clarinet but nowadays both these famous works are performed on more modern versions.

This gorgeous piece was played with an obvious enjoyment by the quintet as they brought it to life afresh for the audience, swaying like birch trees in a variable wind, as if the music itself resided deep in their bodies, while the eyes flickered, always alert to their fellow players. The leader, first violin player Caroline Pether’s whole face reflected her love of the music and all were similarly engaged as their bodies and minds became one with the instruments, the themes and the rhythms. In chamber music particularly no one instrument is more important, not even the soloist. The ensemble is all.

The flowing first movement with its repeated themes gives way to the second, where the clarinet more clearly has the melody line, the others acting mainly as a background except when the first violin takes the tune, which at times becomes a kind of conversation between violin and clarinet.

The third movement opens emphatically with first violin and viola and then passes to a conversation between second violin and cello before the clarinet enters with panache. Enjoyment and humour is evident throughout this minuet and the accompanying two trios, the first violin player even bouncing in her seat, while below, adding depth to the music, the cello growls.

The fourth movement is marked allegro con variazioni. The musicians take it at a cracking pace building up through a variety of playful variations contrasted by more thoughtful ones until it finally soars into a repetition of the first theme, faster and more jaunty than ever. Wonderful!After the interval we were treated to Mendelssohn’s String Octet in E-flat major, Opus 20, an innovative work composed when Mendelssohn was only sixteen. Not only is it amazing that he should write such a piece at such a tender age but he also dared to experiment with a doubling up of instruments – eight instead of four – which is still only rare in chamber music, the norm being quartets or quintets.

After the classical treat of Mozart it was a lovely contrast to be carried along by the lusher romanticism of the young Mendelssohn. The first movement is scampering, joyful and youthful as if it were a grand adventure, exploring all the wonders of the world. The initial melody is returned to again and again with different combinations of instruments. The centre of this first movement leads into a slower more mournful section, as if a running youth has experienced something more thought-provoking before the instruments in staccato unison climb upwards and suddenly we’re off again on a new exciting adventure.

After a slower, thoughtful second movement the adventure continues in the last two movements which follow each other without a break. It starts once more as a scamper where each instrument passes the buck to the next as if in tumbling relay. The voices of the instruments suggest the kind of animals a youngster might notice when running through a wood: birds twitter, amphibians hop, small creatures rustle in the undergrowth and at one point a heavier animal stamps through the undergrowth. The whole of this second half is humorous and light. At the end the first violin leads the rest in a helter-skelter of sound which gathers enormous speed until it reaches a breathless full stop.

Wow!

This was a thoroughly enjoyable evening and I congratulate the whole of Manchester Camerata and Fiona Cross for the sensitivity of her clarinet playing for treating the audience to such a joyful and spring-like experience. Even the sadness of Saggers’ opening composition was not out of place, for his depiction of his grandmother when healthy was also joyful to hear.

This article was previously published on Lark Reviews.