The Endymion : the first Coffee Concert 2012 – 2013, a second review

The Endymion at the Corn Exchange, 28th October 2012

a personal view by Andrew Polmear

I wasn’t really looking forward to this concert. I’ve always found the clarinet rather limited in the range of sound it can make. And it seems that the great composers have felt the same, judging by how little chamber music there is for clarinet, at least until the 20th century. In fact, it’s usually the Mozart and Brahms clarinet quintets that are played and we have heard the Brahms as recently as this year’s Brighton Festival. In addition, a light rain was falling as we walked down to the Dome.

Why does everything change when we walk into the Corn Exchange? It’s a barn of a place and, frankly, it was a bit underheated. But the circle of chairs around the performers’ dais draws us in. Perhaps too it’s the knowledge that these events are only happening because of a grass-roots movement by members of the audience of the Old Market Coffee Concert series before they folded. These are our concerts and we want them to work.

Feeling better I picked up the programme to find that the clarinettist was Tony Pay; one the great British clarinettists as well as someone I knew from University. He’s not a member of Endymion but was guesting with them. I was cheering up no end. Then they came in, Tony carrying something that definitely was not a clarinet. It was light brown in colour and so long that when he sat down it rested on his calves. Then he stood up to explain himself. At last! We’ve asked many times if performers would talk about themselves, the music, their instruments, anything really, but so far they have declined. It’s galling to be so close to them that we can hear them breathing, and not have at least one of them relate to us other than through the music.

What Tony said was as good as the fact that he was talking: briefly he was going to play on a 19th century clarinet with an extra length added. This gave it an extra octave of bass notes, equivalent to the basset clarinet for which Mozart originally wrote his quintet. Also, he ended his talk casually, they would play ‘K’ by Philip Venables first as a prelude to the Mozart.

‘K’ started with high harmonics from the strings, so high they were almost painful, then gradually the sounds came lower, warmer, still no tune yet, no recognisable harmonies, then over a total of 7 minutes the notes of the opening two bars of the Mozart could be heard. It was like mist clearing from round a building, slowly revealing its shape. A brief pause, music changed on the stands, and the Mozart started, those slow descending notes that we’ve heard so many times before but never with such relief. It was like coming home. Perhaps some people didn’t like it. Some people don’t like the glass pyramid in the centre of the Louvre courtyard. I find that putting the old and the new together makes me see both in a new light.

But the best thing was the way they played the Mozart. Some players go for a mellifluous sound throughout, as though they, like the old me, think that that’s all a clarinet can do. But this playing was warm, committed, spanning the whole range of emotions. And the elongated clarinet made a different sound from that highly polished black clarinet that we are used to; a little muted, more gentle, a perfect match for the strings. A few things weren’t perfect. The ensemble wasn’t as good as we are used to from players who do nothing but  play together in a quartet. There were odd duff notes from the strings, but only because they were playing daringly and taking risks.  These are the things that make live performance so much more exciting than a recording.

Thank goodness for the interval; I could not have gone straight on from that to the Brahms. It was another committed performance, this time bringing out the turbulence and tension in this late work by the ageing Brahms. On a few high entries Tony, now on a glossy black clarinet, shrieked the anguish that’s in the music.

A great concert – and great to see the performers afterwards in the bar.