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ARNOLD BAX - Bax and Elgar String Quartets by the Pavăo Quartet - Reviews by
Christopher Webber and Graham Parlett


Last Modified December 18, 2007

Bax: String Quartet No.1 and Elgar: String Quartet.

Pavăo Quartet: Kerenza Peacock, Jenny Sacha (violins), Natalia Gomes (viola), Bryony James (cello).

Recorded in St Mary’s Church, Hanwell, London, June 2007.

Discrete Recordings DISC0701.

Duration: 49:24.

Reviewed by Graham Parlett


The Pavăo Quartet was founded in 1998 by the violinist Jenny Sacha, who played in the Oxford County Youth Orchestra and then went on to study at the Royal Academy of Music, where she met the other members of this youthful ensemble. Their first CD was entitled ‘Someone to Watch Over Me’ and contained arrangements of popular songs, reaching sixth place in HMV’s Classical [sic] Chart and being played on Radios 2 and 3 and Classic FM. I confess that I had never heard them before, but on the evidence of this excellent new recording of Bax’s First String Quartet they are destined to go far. 

I made a direct comparison with the Maggini Quartet’s splendid recording of the work on Naxos and found that, on the whole, the two ensembles take a not dissimilar view of the score. Both play with great gusto in the outer movements and it is quite difficult to decided which is the more enjoyable performance. The Magginis have a more refined sound than the Pavăos, who are sometimes a little rough-edged, which of course suits much of the extravert dance music in the finale, such as the galumphing ‘planxty’ passage in 6/8. Indeed, the opening of that movement is livelier in their hands than in the Magginis’ and they often make more of the accents, while the closing pages have a quite irresistible swagger to them.  It is very difficult to choose between the Pavăos and the Magginis in the first movement ― both play with just the right combination of light-heartedness and precision ― and only in the second movement did I feel that the Magginis were slightly preferable, being quieter and more relaxed than their younger colleagues. The Pavăos are a little faster and less expressive but nevertheless have a clarity that often brings out the contrapuntal lines more distinctly than in the Naxos recording. 

There are, of course, far more recordings of Elgar’s only quartet than of Bax’s First, and I cannot claim to have heard them all. But the performance struck me as having the same youthful enthusiasm as in the Bax, and nobody buying the CD could feel disappointed. The quality of the sound on this new Discrete Recordings disc is exceptionally good and has a closer, more analytical sound than the Naxos disc, though the latter is also first rate. The Griller Quartet’s pioneering performance on Dutton is mandatory listening for anyone interested in Bax’s music, and only the English Quartet on Chandos fail to convince in this music. (I hope too that one day we shall be able to hear on CD the very first recording of the work, by the Wilson Quartet, issued on 78s by the National Gramophonic Society.)  

One of the websites I visited contains an anecdote about the Pavăo Quartet. A male cellist was sitting with them on a train and asked, ‘So, are you a girly quartet, or a real quartet?’. On the basis of the glamorous cover photograph to this new CD he could, I suppose, have been excused for his impertinent question; but if he had heard these marvellous performances, he would have had no need to enquire. They are indeed ‘a real quartet’, and I strongly recommend their performance of Bax’s First as a most enjoyable alternative to the Magginis on Naxos and the Grillers on Dutton.

 © Graham Parlett 2007

Pavăo Quartet

Bax: String Quartet No.1 in G (23:12)

Elgar: String Quartet in E minor, Op.83 (26:06) 

Discrete Recordings disc0701 [tt=49:24] 

[rec. St Mary’s Church Hanwell, June 2007] 

Review by Christopher Webber

Old Arnold himself would no doubt have been hugely enthusiastic about this project – and not only because the Pavăo Quartet’s liner note features full-spread photos, plus credits for make-up, hair stylist and dresses (Armani and Oldfield). For beyond the modishly sexy presentation lies a passionate and penetrating performance of his G major String Quartet, appropriately coupled with its near-contemporary sibling by Bax’s dedicatee, Sir Edward Elgar. 

In some respects the Pavăo display oddly old fashioned virtues. Their swift, flowing tempi and wide dynamic spectrum help them put these works across with an urgency seldom found these days. Both seem absolutely right for Bax; and an indulgent use of portamento adds to the excitement with which these four, young ex-Royal Academy players embrace the “brazen romanticism” of the composer’s Celtic mode. The warmth of their playing disarms criticism, especially in the most moving account of Bax’s tender slow movement it’s been my luck to encounter. The in-your-face recording adds immediacy to what turns out to be a very special reading. The Pavăos love this work, and they want us to love it too.

It may all be a bit heart-on-sleeve for some listeners. Certainly they don’t articulate the radiant, Dvorak-like opening movement with the precision of previous recordings, and so much living dangerously may not stand up to repeated listening so well as the Maggini’s robust and sensitive Naxos version. But the sheer, purple passion of the Pavăo’s vision swept me along as never before in this most approachable of the composer’s three essays in the medium, and I commend it as heartily as I feel he would have done himself. 

The very qualities which make their Bax so gripping prove something of a double-edged sword with Elgar, many of whose subtle moods are swept up into a maelstrom of vibrant, intellectually-driven emotionalism almost as raw as early Schoenberg. The results are anything but dull, not least as the Pavăos career through a last movement notoriously difficult to sustain. Occasionally though – especially in the elegiac, piacevole middle movement – I found myself yearning for the repose, reticence and prelapsian Good Taste you’d find in more traditional readings. No matter. This is a thrilling issue from a Quartet clearly worth watching for more than their contemporary, crossover charms, and it deserves every success. 

© Christopher Webber 2007