Superb guitar quartet produces music to suit all ages and tastes

Hexham Courant, Robert Gibson

THINGS have been going splendidly for the Aquarelle Guitar Quartet. The group, which was formed at the Royal Northern College of Music in 1999, is recognised as among the finest in British chamber music. Add to that a number of stonkingly-well-reviewed albums and it’s easy to see why Michael Baker, James Jervis, Vasilis Bessas and Rory Russell are in such demand when it comes to live performance.

Thankfully, it was Hexham that was blessed with their presence on Sunday when they put on a concert as part of the Hexham Abbey Festival. Of all the audiences I’ve ever seen there, the one they attracted was by far the most varied, ranging from youngsters, no doubt hoping to pick up a few pointers for their own playing, to the very, very much more mature.

The moment the concert started, however, it was clear that what the quartet was offering would transcend age – or even basic musical preferences. Indeed, throughout the afternoon, they took bits from classical, bits from folk, bits from jazz and bits from rock, stamping their own unique and evocative style on every one of them.

As a guitar player myself, I’d been interested in how the quartet would work together and it turned out to be a good deal more complex than the standard division of rhythm and lead. Instead, layer upon layer of delicate melody, resonant bass and rich chords built into a beautiful wall of sound through the ever-varying interplay of the musicians.

It takes talent to pull that off and these guitarist have it by the bucket load – tight, precise and emotionally– charged, even when playing at blistering speeds.

For me, the highlights of the afternoon included The Swan, a folk song by Catriona McKay which was executed with a delicacy that told of great respect for the composer. Andrew York’s Quiccan was also a delight, highlighting the versatility of the quartet, while Django Rheinhdart’s Minor Swing proved something of a crowd pleaser. The latter, readers may be aware, was featured in the film Chocolat, in which Johnny Depp’s character performs it, and was also included in the quartet’s hit recording Final Cut, which brings together some of the great themes from cinema during the past century.

Also on the Sunday’s track list was music from the biopic Frida, Il Postino and the Motorcycle Diaries, on which the musicians were able to show off a charming little instrument called the charango. Indeed, all four proved themselves multi-talented to say the least, creating astonishing percussion effects through well-placed slaps on the wood of their guitars, perfectly timed claps and string muting.

It’s also notable that music doesn’t generally come arranged for such quartets, so there’s a lot more than just the playing that goes into putting on a concert like this.The final factor for making it a resounding success, though, was the venue itself, which was perfectly suited to the style of music. Hexham Abbey has great acoustics and hopefully the quartet will take advantage of them again.