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The Fell Clarinet Quartet
John Robert Brown
The members of the Fell Quartet met when they were students at the Royal Northern College of Music: Colin Blamey, Marianne Rawles, Lenny Sayers and Helen Bywater.
‘What to call the quartet was a challenge,’ says Sayers. ‘At first, we couldn’t come up with a decent name. As the late Sidney Fell had been the teacher of various people who taught us - such as Paul Dintinger, Barry Gregson and Colin Pownall - there’s obviously a lineage. We feel that we’re part of that lineage. Sidney Fell’s is a good name to take on.’
Fell was a one-time principal of the London Symphony Orchestra. His playing was a feature of the many sound-tracks recorded by the Sinfonia of London at Denham Studios, in the post-war decades. Along with Reginald Kell, Jack Brymer and Frederick Thurston, Fell is regarded as one of the great British clarinet players of the era.
‘There have been a few reshuffles, but quartet has had the same personnel for quite a while now. Colin Blamey and I have been in the quartet the longest. It started in 1999.
‘We won a Tunnell Trust Award. We got onto the Live Music Now! scheme in 2002, but our first big success was winning a Tunnell Trust Award, given annually for chamber music. The reward for that was a series of recitals in Scotland. We went over to the Isle of Arran, which was great. The prize is extremely well regarded in Scotland, and sets you up well for understanding how this aspect of the music profession works. We've had some work in the music clubs in Scotland on the back of it. They see you have a Tunnell Trust Award; they know what that represents.
‘For me, the quartet started as a way to do some chamber music,’ says Sayers. ‘When I was at the Royal Northern there were lots of clarinettists, but not so many oboists, not so many bassoonists. To get into a wind quintet was difficult. We did get to play in an orchestra, but you know what it’s like in music college, quite competitive. A way of getting to play some chamber music the four post graduate clarinettists decided to do some clarinet quartets. Then we discovered that one could do quite a lot with it.
‘I wrote my first piece for it in May 2000, which is Mazeltov, which is on the CD. I’m not actually Jewish. People often assume that I must be because I write this Jewish music, but it’s because I love the music. I played some Klezmer music when I was at York University. The clarinet is an instrument that works well for Klezmer.’
‘I was keen to get the quartet going,’ says Blamey. ‘I've always been interested in chamber music. I owned a couple of CDs of the Thurston Quartet, which was John Bradbury’s group. And I love the Trio di Clarone, which is Sabine Meyer’s trio. I possess all of those CDs, with the basset horn trios. I was interested in how they organised their programmes because, with three basset horns, they are limited for repertoire. They have a jazz CD, where they have Eddie Daniels on top. Then they did arrangements of al the Mozart operas. They are always pushing (extending) the repertoire. It’s surprising how much clarinet repertoire exists. With doing the Salford concerts, where we are getting repeat concerts within the same venue, we are keen not to repeat repertoire. We’ve been forced to do a bit of research. There are a lot of groups out there, and quite a bit of repertoire. Some of the pieces are unpublished. A lot of the time we make direct contact with the composers. For example, the Skempton piece we played today is unpublished, although much of his work is actually published by Open University Press.
‘During the past nine years we’ve had pretty regular work as a group,’ says Sayers. ‘That keeps us together. We are all professional. We’ve all got a living to make. We’ve all learned a great deal. Personally, I’ve learned a lot from being a part of a chamber group that works regularly. I’m talking musically, about playing with other people, about the give-and-take of ensemble playing. As you’ve seen in our concert, we are very democratic. We don’t have first, second, third and fourth chairs. The good thing about it is sharing the parts out.’
Blamey points out some of the challenges of programming: ‘It’s difficult to get a whole programme where the line-up doesn’t change at all,’ he says. ‘Today, the Bartók had the C clarinet and the A clarinet, the Gershwin had the A clarinet in the middle movement, and so on.’
‘We’ve all taken on rôles in the group,’ says Sayers. ‘I always take lead in the klezmer music. Colin often does the dramatic stuff. Marianne takes the Eb. Helen usually takes the jazz and, more recently, the C clarinet.’
Do they field some amusing remarks about the rarer instruments?
‘Yes,’ says Sayers. ‘When we play in schools, people usually think that the bass clarinet is a saxophone, sometimes a bassoon, or even an oboe! Of course, it’s quite unusual to see those clarinets in a chamber ensemble. When we give a concert to a music society, we’re introducing the audience to the clarinet family, and to a variety of types of music.
Sayers fills in the detail: ‘The kind of comment we get is: ‘Oh, I’d never thought I’d enjoy listening to a clarinet quartet, but that was great.’ Things like that. We are always playing bits of jazz, or bits of folk music. People are tapping their feet. A Fell Quartet concert is a different experience. A good friend of mine is a violin player. He got our CD, and said: ‘I never thought that I’d enjoy listening to a clarinet quartet.’ People are surprised to discover that they can actually enjoy it! We’d like to commission more music from the composers that we know.’ Sayers expresses enthusiasm for the education aspect of the quartet’s work. ‘I’m keen on the education side of what we do. I’ve written quite a lot of music for children recently, and designed a few workshops, including storytelling workshops. They‘ve proved to be successful.
Blamey tells me that The new CD is on the Delphian label. The quartet enjoys a good working relationship with the manager of the label. ‘The new CD has been played on BBC Radio Three quite a lot,’ he says. ‘So we’re pleased with that. The first CD was not reviewed in The Gramophone, but was played on the radio. But this one has been reviewed. And, because of the exposure this disc has been getting, we’ve been invited to do concerts further afield than before.’
John Robert Brown
Lenny Sayers: Buffet Vintage Bb clarinet, Vandoren B40 mouthpiece mouthpiece. Selmer Mark Two bass clarinet, Vandoren mouthpiece re-layed by Anton Weinberg.
Colin Blamey: Buffet RC Prestige Bb clarinet, Vandoren B45 mouthpiece. Selmer Mark Two bass clarinet, Vandoren mouthpiece re-layed by Anton Weinberg.
Helen Bywater: Peter Eaton International Bb clarinet, Leblanc Eb clarinet.
Marianne Rawles: Buffet R13 Bb clarinet, Portnoy mouthpiece adapted by Ramon Wodkowski. Leblanc Opus Eb clarinet.
All play on Vandoren reeds. Their instruments are all fitted with Eddie Ashton Superpads.