First published in The Guardian on 4 March, 2015
Like a screen actor on the small stage or a stadium band unplugged in a jazz bar, it’s often hugely illuminating to hear an orchestral musician in chamber setting. Players who spend their lives following a baton and projecting nuance across a hulking symphonic ensemble are suddenly able to zoom in and take charge; usually the musician in question is thrilled by the chance to whisper rather than shout, and that thrill is no bad starting place for exciting music-making.
The musician in question at this Hebrides Ensemble concert was Yann Ghiro, principal clarinet of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and a stunning player. The Hebrides had already given the programme — three rich-scored clarinet quintets — in Perth at lunchtime, then hightailed it to Edinburgh for a repeat tea-time performance. Anyone who has played a wind instrument will know the stamina issues of such a schedule (think wobbly cheeks). But with iron technique, gorgeously rounded sound and the sort of control that makes anything seem possible, Ghiro appeared entirely unfazed.
His playing was also entirely unsentimental, able to sculpt a phrase with zero fuss. This was particularly welcome in the Rhapsodic Quintet by Herbert Howells, music that can sound sappy but here sounded stoic, fervent and robust. The First Clarinet Quintet by Isang Yun contains suspended, silky lines floating above murky, anguished strings — it’s beautiful writing, as long as the clarinettist never needs to breathe. Those long lines need to sound weightless, and in Ghiro’s hands they did. The programme closed with Brahms’s B-minor Clarinet Quintet (without repeats, which felt lopsided; Brahms never wrote anything for nothing). Here the strings didn’t settle into their shifting rhythms in the first movement and lacked spark in the finale’s variations. That plain-speaking articulation, so refreshing in the Howells, now sounded a little abrupt.