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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Phantasy Quintet
String Quartet No. 1 in G minor
String Quartet No. 2 in A minor

Maggini Quartet, with Garfield Jackson (viola)
Rec 13th-15th June 2000, Potton Hall, Suffolk
NAXOS 8.555300 [66.29]
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Vaughan Williams's chamber music is neglected, and for that reason alone this new issue to be welcomed. There are few recordings available, and few performances are given, save of the song cycle with piano quintet, Wenlock Edge, which in any case somewhat stretches the definition of chamber music.

Naxos has developed an impressive commitment to the neglected aspects of the repertoire, not least in British music, and in the Maggini Quartet they have chosen artists whose vision and skill are perfect for encouraging a wider awareness of this interesting music. The fact that the two quartets span a period of some thirty-five years makes the disc all the more intriguing.

The Quartet No. 1 is the earliest of three works coupled here, though Vaughan Williams did revise it in 1921, some thirteen years after he originally wrote it. But that 1908 provenance remains significant, not least because that was the year that Vaughan Williams spent several months living in Paris, studying with no less a figure than Maurice Ravel (who was three years his junior). This experience was essential to VW's development as a composer; is it any coincidence that the achievement of his true genius followed almost immediately? For instance, the Tallis Fantasia and the Sea Symphony were composed within about eighteen months of this period in Paris.

In this context the Quartet No. 1 takes on a special interest, and the Ravel influence, which Vaughan Williams described as his 'French fever', is palpable. At just under thirty minutes, this is a substantial work in four movements, with subtle developments and occasional traces of folksong. The rhythmic vitality can also be compelling, particularly in the finale, marked Rondo Capriccioso. The music is well served by the Maggini Quartet and by the Naxos engineers too.

The Phantasy Quintet, composed in 1912, adds an extra viola part to the string quartet. This is taken by Garfield Jackson, who blends effortlessly with his colleagues, and contributes also to the virtuoso playing in the scherzo, whose Prestissimo marking insists that it should be played as quickly as humanly possible. And in that regard these players do not disappoint.

The Quartet No. 2 is a later piece, composed during the Second World War when Vaughan Williams was preparing for the first performance of the Fifth Symphony. The premiere took place the following year, at a National Gallery concert in 1944, when the dedicatee was the violist of the Menges Quartet, Jean Stewart. Not surprisingly, it is the viola which receives a special focus, almost leading the ensemble for much of the time. This composer always had a special love of the viola, and it has some wonderful music here, for example in the second movement Romance, which it opens and closes. The finale of the Quartet is particularly effective, and particularly affecting too. This Epilogue is beautifully serene, a veritable benediction entitled Greetings from Joan to Jean, since it was originally conceived for a film project about Joan of Arc.

At the bargain Naxos price, this disc represents quite extraordinary value, and it also adds something special to our awareness of the composer's achievement.

Terry Barfoot

Hubert Culot has also been listening to this disc

Vaughan Williams' String Quartet in G minor was completed after his brief studies with Ravel (he revised it later in 1921), and though partly influenced by Ravel, the music is unmistakably Vaughan Williams throughout. It is also his most classically conceived piece. Its four movements adhere to the traditional pattern: the opening Allegro is followed by a lively Scherzo (Minuet and Trio) whereas the beautifully lyrical Romanza is offset by the folk-like rumbustious Finale. Vaughan Williams' First String Quartet is a wonderful, luminous piece that is still too little heard nowadays.

The Second String Quartet was written much later and is a more adventurous work than its predecessor. It is dedicated to Jean Stewart, violist of the Menges Quartet, which is why the viola always plays the leading role. The viola introduces the first movement with an impassioned theme on which much of the ensuing music is based. The viola also starts the somewhat enigmatic Romanza. The mood of this long, questing movement is one of tranquil, though by no means appeased meditation. The opening of the troubled Scherzo is again by the viola with a theme from RVW's film score The 49th Parallel. Both the Romanza and the Scherzo undoubtedly bear the imprint of the war years. The Epilogue, based on a theme written for a film score and unused as such, has the same consolatory strains as the final Passacaglia of the Fifth Symphony completed at about the same time. The Second String Quartet is a masterpiece of Vaughan Williams' last decade, and again too rarely heard.

The somewhat shorter Phantasy Quintet of 1912 , cast in Cobbett's beloved phantasy mould, is one of RVW's long-neglected minor masterpieces. Its four contrasted sections, played without break, make for one of Vaughan Williams' most delightful works. The opening of the Prelude (again started by the second viola) could not be by anyone else. The Prelude leads into the lively, rhythmically tricky Scherzo in turn flowing into the beautifully poised Alla Sarabanda. The quintet ends with a folksy, rumbustious Burlesca bringing this lovely work to a brilliant, up-lifting conclusion.

The Maggini Quartet have already put us in their debt for their superb Naxos recordings released so far: Bridge, Britten, Walton and most outstandingly - Moeran. And much is still to come: Bax, Bridge and Bliss among others (and hopefully some more recent quartets either written for them or first performed by them). Again they prove highly competent and sympathetic performers of British music, and their playing and understanding of these magnificent, though still too little-known works by Vaughan Williams is remarkable. Unreservedly recommended.

Hubert Culot

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