Review: Hebrides Ensemble with Jane Irwin

First published in the Guardian on 15 October, 2013

Hebrides Ensemble/Irwin
Perth Concert Hall

Lunchtime concerts are a tricky balancing act. Cram in too much and the hour-long slot feels fraught; keep the programme lightweight and the whole thing feels inconsequential. When it works, though, the format can make a time-stretching oasis in the middle of the day. That was the case for the large part of this finely-judged Hebrides programme.

It opened with the Rhapsodic Quintet by Herbert Howells: a work of intense English romanticism for clarinet and strings, composed in 1919 with a general wistfulness for what had been lost in the war. Clarinettish Yann Ghiro captured the yearning with rounded, sensitive playing that blended warmly with the strings, but what made this performance most striking was the Ensemble’s expression of the brawn and turmoil as well as the obvious nostalgia in Howells’s writing.

A trio of viola, flute and harp took time to find the stillness at the heart of Toru Takemitsu’s And Then I knew ‘Twas Wind. Harp lines open the piece like the rustling of a quiet breeze; here that breeze seemed fairly whipped up from the outset. Time eventually did slow with the lapping, looping melodic fragments towards the close, but the meditativeness came a little too late and ended too soon. By contrast, Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro could have used some more outright pizazz; harpist Gabriella Dall’Olio was a reticent soloist for what’s essentially a fun showpiece.

The programme closed with Berio’s Folk Songs: spirited settings of tunes hailing from America to Azerbaijan. Jane Irwin made a great match for the anthology, with a hearty, bluesy colour to her voice and an uncluttered delivery that cut to the gist of every song. As in the Ravel, the Hebrides were diligent but po-faced conspirators: a tad stiff next to Irwin’s easy, feisty swing.