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Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

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String Quartet in E minor

String Quartet in A minor

Britten Quartet
rec Bristol, 1991 REGIS RRC 1015 [55.50]
Bargain price (around £6 per disc)

This coupling, now at Regis's beguiling bargain price, was very well received when first issued by the late lamented Collins Classics. The recording is powerful and every instrumental line is laid out with aural transparency. The music making is sweet of tone and single minded. The Elgar is done with that mixture of breathy hesitancy and passionate oration that we recognise from the two great string concertos. Reputedly the Coull (identically coupled) on Hyperion are superior but I am not familiar with that disc. The performances here seemed to me full of insight and sensitivity.

If the themes of the Elgar are not of the superlative distinction of those in the two concertos they are still no mean achievement. The work was completed in 1919 and it seems likely that the Great War had played its part in sapping the brighter colours from the work except in the 'chasseur' Finale. In the trilogy of works from that time I find the quartet the least compelling. The violin sonata suffers similarly but the Piano Quintet is another matter altogether. All three works were premiered together on 26 April 1919.

The Walton is a stronger work, jagged and romantic and in the finale desperately energetic as if Time's Winged Chariot drove all before it. It is his second quartet, dating from 1945, written after the 'core' works. The work is dedicated to the conductor Ernest Irving (who assisted Walton with his war-time scores for celluloid). The first movement bustles with activity cross-cut with fugal elements. The presto is haunted by memories of the Mephistophelean scherzo from the First Symphony. The big lento croons elegiacally in a theme that dips in the same direction as the setting of 'If I forget thee' from Belshazzar's Feast with a dash of Valse Triste along the way.

An extremely welcome and recommendable coupling powerfully recorded. The playing time seems rather short reflecting the original Collins disc. It is a pity that another work could not have been added.

Rob Barnett


Rob Barnett

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