Clouds Harp Quartet

Buxton Fringe 2014

There may be two harp quartets in Britain – and you could hear them both in Buxton next Monday. What are the chances of that? Briefly, 4 Girls, 4 Harps play arrangements of some familiar (others less so) classical pieces at St John’s Church http://www.buxtonfestival.co.uk/music-series/4-girls-4-harps/.

The Clouds Harp Quartet repertoire relies almost exclusively on one of their number, Esther Swift. Esther met Elfair Dyer, Rebecca Mills and Angelina Warburton at the Royal Northern College of Music and in 2008 she asked them if they wanted to play a piece that she had written. Interestingly, given their shared classical background, Esther doesn’t write the quartet’s music down. She teaches the others the pieces and they play them by ear.

This may account for the relatively loose style of playing the quartet has developed. This is not to say that it is not carefully and tightly arranged and structured, but they are able to concentrate on each other and their instruments as they play – rather than having to look at the score. Given the size of the instruments the performance is necessarily very physical and dramatic in potential which is realised by musicians who seem genuinely to relish the opportunity to play together. It could also be that Esther’s musical influences encourage her to write in a slightly freer style. She obviously listens to folk music – she is Scottish and the programme included a piece based on the murder ballad The Twa Sisters and the encore was an arrangement of Burns’ Ae Fond Kiss. You can also imagine that Esther listens to the music of the likes of Ludovico Einaudi, for example.

In her arrangements she uses the four instruments to create overlapping and interwoven lines and rhythms with phrases and patterns being passed from one harpist to the other. Most of her pieces take their inspiration from the natural world – two long suites Water and Clouds took up most of the 90-minute programme. On first hearing Clouds – the piece that Esther first offered to the new quartet – may yet remain the most varied and complex piece.

Esther’s standing as a composer is such that she has been offered commissions; the most recent of which is The Twa Sisters work which, by nature of its subject matter, requires playing that is heavy and dark. Angelic harps it is not.

The audience was totally captivated by the music and the musicians. The quartet is playing three more times in Buxton – and they have chosen to play in four different venues. The Fringe always throws up unexpected pleasures and delights; this is one of them, don’t miss Clouds Harp Quartet.

Keith Savage

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