• Catherine Flutsch

Primus Inter Pares: Instruments of Time and Truth

★★★★★

Review: Instruments of Time and Truth Summer Concert Series, from 8 July - 12 August 2021. Tickets available here. Free tickets available for people aged 8-25, call the box office on 01865 305 305.


[Disclosure: IT&T provided me with a ticket to this concert for the purposes of this review.]

Instruments of Time and Truth’s Thursday evening summer concerts have become oases of calm. Each week, it is a real treat to step through the portal of those imposing wooden doors into the hushed confines of Christchurch college grounds.

This latest concert, Primus Inter Pares, was again, a concert filled with beautiful music, in stunning surrounds, played by world class musicians and presented in an informal and friendly atmosphere.

The entrance to Christchurch college, going to the concert.

Primus Inter Pares was cleverly programmed display to best advantage both Mozart pieces that made up this concert. The first piece, Mozart’s String Quartet in C major, K157 is the third of six string quartets that Mozart composed when he was only 16, while on tour in Milan; as violinist Jean Paterson explained to us. The audience was rather rueful at this point as each person, over the age of 16, briefly considered their own contributions at the same age.

Detail from portrait of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart at the age of 13 in Verona, 1770, attributed to Giambettino Cignaroli. A few years before he composed String Quartet in C Major, K157.

This is a relatively short piece, with three movements that are fresh, light and easy to listen to. The final movement, the Presto, finished on a high. This was the perfect piece to start the concert allowing the audience to relax into the music, almost like a warm-up for the next piece, the more substantial Clarinet Quintet in A Major K581.

This picture shows previous week's concert, on 22 July.

Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet in A Major K581 took up the rest of the concert. It is the only quintet Mozart finished for the clarinet, featuring the basset clarinet and supported by a string quartet. Mozart wrote the piece for his friend, musician Anton Stadler who championed the use of the basset clarinet.

Anton Stadler's sketch of the basset clarinet.

Before the musicians began the piece, clarinettist Sarah Thurlow gave the audience a charming, informal and witty introduction to the basset clarinet. Thurlow showed us the instrument and explained its quirks. For me, Thurlow’s talk was really fun as I’ve never heard the basset clarinet featured in music played live. Thurlow went into fascinating detail as she explained that the balance point of a basset clarinet is slightly off, so that instead of pivoting toward the musician when one hand is taken off the instrument to move to another position, it pivots away, and can give the musician a sharp hit in the front teeth if they are not careful.

From top to bottom, three types of modern basset clarinet - the German, French and Italian styles.

Thurlow also explained that the basset clarinet has two more tones than a normal clarinet, at the lower end of the register. Those lower tones can only be played by the right thumb and she made the audience laugh by explaining that this makes the holding of the instrument throughout a piece rather precarious.

This picture shows previous week's concert, on 22 July.

Thurlow’s love of the basset clarinet shone through and primed the audience to listen with attention. It is these types of informal talks from experts, coupled with music played at the highest standards that make this concert series unique.

This picture shows previous week's concert, on 22 July.

Even with Thurlow’s introduction, it was a wonderful surprise to hear the beautiful rich tone of the basset clarinet, which filled the entire Cathedral - right to the very ceiling. To me, it sounded richer and more mellow than a normal clarinet. The instrument is exquisite and I wish we could hear it featured more in live music. The string quartet supported the basset clarinet beautifully and allowed it to shine as the star. It was a real thrill to hear this lovely and rare instrument played live in such a splendid setting.

This picture shows previous week's concert, on 22 July.

In addition to being treated to beautiful music, I have learned something in each of the concerts in Instruments of Time and Truth’s summer series. Primus Inter Pares introduced me to the basset clarinet and it was such a treat; music featuring this rather magical instrument will become part of my regular listening.

I took the feature photo after the concert - from left to right Jean Paterson, Liz MacCarthy, Gabriel Amherst, Sarah Thurlow and Venessa McNaught. I took the photo of the entrance to Christchurch college on 22 July. Photo of the concert on 22 July provided by, and used with permission of, Instruments of Time and Truth. Photo of basset clarinets used under Creative Commons licence. Other images in the public domain.

Square Stage