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Hugh WOOD (b.1932)
String Quartet no.1, op.4 (1962) [16:37] *
String Quartet no.2, op.13 (1970) [13:38] *
The Horses, op.10 (1967) [10:46] **
The Rider Victory, op.11 (1968) [8:31] **
Priaulx RAINIER (1903-1986)
Quanta (1962) [12:29] ***
String Trio (1966) [15:18] ***
Lennox BERKELEY (1903-1989)
Duo for Cello and Piano, op.18 part 1 [see text] (1971) [5:56] ****
Peter Racine FRICKER (1920-1990)
Sonata for Cello and Piano, op.28 (1956) [15:47] ****
Martin DALBY (b.1942)
Variations for Cello and Piano (1966) [8:45] ****
John MCCABE (b.1939)
Partita for Solo Cello (1966) [15:45] ****
Dartington String Quartet (Colin Sauer (violin); Malcolm Latchem (violin); Keith Lovell (viola); Michael Evans (cello)) *; April Cantelo (soprano) **; Paul Hamburger (piano) **; London Oboe Quartet (Janet Craxton (oboe); Perry Hart (violin); Brian Hawkins (viola); Kenneth Heath (cello)) ***; Julian Lloyd Webber (cello) ****; John McCabe (piano) ****
rec. 1970 ***; January, March 1973 *, **, Kingsway Hall, London; March 1976 ****, St John's Smith Square, UK. ADD
Mid Price Double
LYRITA SRCD.304 [40:38 + 74:10]

Experience Classicsonline


This double CD of uplifting and consistently appealing chamber and instrumental music by British composers, Hugh Wood, Lennox Berkeley, Peter Racine Fricker, Martin Dalby and John McCabe, and South African, Priaulx Rainier, is a little odd. It's a reissue of Argo LPs from 1970 and 1974 respectively (ZRG 660, ZRG 750) in the case of Rainier and Wood;  and of a L'Oiseau-Lyre LP (LP DSLO 18) from 1977 in the case of Berkeley, Fricker, Dalby and McCabe. All have been digitally re-mastered very satisfactorily, although no tapes were locatable of the two Rainier works: the LP itself was used.

On the first CD come the two Wood string quartets, which were written in 1962 and 1970;  and the two vocal pieces: The Horses written in 1967 to three poems by Ted Hughes, and The Rider Victory (1968) to four poems by Edwin Muir. It's not explicitly stated anywhere on the product what the connections and reasons for this collection are. So it's to be assumed that Lyrita, owning the rights, has simply decided to make these ten inspiring and durable pieces largely from the 1960s - Fricker's Sonata was written in 1956 and Berkeley's Duo in 1971 - available again.

That's also good because only two of the pieces on offer here are otherwise available: Quanta (on Redcliffe Recordings 7) and the Berkeley (on Naxos 8557324). Note that in the Naxos catalogue, as widely elsewhere (e.g., this work appears as Opus 81, 'number' (or 'part') 1 not 'Opus 18, part 1' as is printed in the booklet of this set… Op. 18 is Berkeley's Divertimento.

For those who remember the feeling of the music and some of its most exciting and committed performers at that time, to hear Cantelo, Hamburger, Craxton and indeed McCabe himself again is to hear just how justified was their authority in those years. Experimentation seemed to be dictating so many directions without any kind of self-consciousness or need to apologise. After over 35 years this music sounds just as exciting, accomplished and fresh.

The two Wood string quartets will be the highlights for many. The longest pieces at over sixteen and thirteen minutes each, they are searching, rich and full of substance. Wood has five string quartets and much other chamber music; he is as at home in this milieu as in his larger, symphonic, pieces - all too few of which have current recordings. So this set is particularly welcome. Each has a connection with the BBC and the Dartington Quartet… commission, first performance. The quartets are sonorous and incisive, economical and distilled. The first in particular achieves part of its impact thanks to repeated self-reference. The second is radically different in structure: no fewer than 39 continuous sections, some played without synchronisation between players. Yet each conveys as much passion and commitment to the musical ideas as does each of the song settings.

There are connections with the BBC again in the two short song 'cycles'. Horses is in some ways a study in sound painting… the mass and movement of the animal, and its wild habitat. Cantelo and Hamburger are superbly evocative, yet always in control here. The Rider Victory is equally intense and navigated just as perceptively by the soprano (the score calls for 'high voice') and pianist.

Priaulx Rainier's oboe Quartet, Quanta, also has a connection with the BBC: it's another Glock commission. In one movement, it too makes much of the structure: spiky, self-referencing and terse, it contrasts with the also single-movement String Trio, especially in its arresting tempi. Craxton and her quartet play both pieces with amazing eloquence - something possible - or likely, perhaps - chiefly when surrounded by music one of whose chief strengths was untrammelled experimentation and self-confidence.

Berkeley's Duo is short. The piece - typical of his urbane, self-contained smaller-scale music - also sees thematic progression in a concentrated atmosphere. Peter Racine Fricker's Sonata is the earliest music in this set to have been composed - on Ischia with Walton (at least, first sketched there) in 1956. Again, it was commissioned by the BBC for the tenth anniversary of the Third Programme. It's as unsettled and fiery as a Walton symphony. Its lyrical moments surely suited Gerald Moore better than the more extrovert first and third movements; Moore premièred the work just over a dozen years before the recording we hear here. The whole is animated and vivacious yet leaves plenty of space for our rumination as listeners.

The Scottish composer Martin Dalby also has strong connection with the BBC: he worked on the Music Programme (successor to the Third) after spending time in Italy. It was there - in 1966 - that he wrote the again quite short Variations for Cello and Piano; Italian colour and vibrancy are evident in the piece. As is an almost Baroque attention to form and structure… it's really a theme with eight variations. Importantly, according to Dalby, the piece represents a turning point in his compositional style. Lloyd Webber and McCabe do its bouncy zest more than full justice. If you're listening to the CD(s) straight through, it makes a good foil for the last, rather sobering, piece, the Partita for Solo Cello from the same year by McCabe himself. Again, variations and sequences give the work its primary raison d'être. There are character portraits, dances and several dashes of humour and parody packed into the eight short movements of the Partita.

So here is a collection of music from composers with some things in common. These five men and one women knew and mixed with one another's teachers, academic institutions  and performers; all enjoyed the patronage of the BBC. At the distance of 35 plus years what strikes one is the self-confidence with which new musical ideas arose and were elaborated by composers in the middle of their careers. The open-mindedness and sheer inspirational professionalism of a BBC dedicated primarily to music as music - and not to packaging, pop, personalities and ratings - is also refreshingly positive to recall.

Unsurprisingly, the standard of music-making throughout the nearly two hours of these two CDs is high. It's varied, too: performers in those days seemed to permit themselves greater indulgences - and justifiably so. The recordings and transfers are clean and easy on the ear, if a little restricted in dynamic range.

The booklet is useful (the ambiguity already cited notwithstanding); it has the poems' texts, and brief sketches of the composers. Those will be useful to anyone too young to have lived through and/or be able to situate the figures to whom this set must be regarded as a rather random tribute. As a representative collection of mainstream music-making from over a generation ago, when things were very different from today in terms of what seemed possible, it makes interesting and rewarding listening.

Mark Sealey


And a further perspective from Rob Barnett


This collection mops up a chamber miscellany deriving from three LPs of the 1970s. The provenance trail leads us to two Decca sub-labels: Argo and L'Oiseau Lyre.

Dissonance predominates among these six composers who were born between 1903 and 1942.

Hugh Wood's first two string quartets are compact. The second is in a single movement. The first is a vivid essay in Schoenbergian tension, scampering expansions and sinister urgency. The Second is even more extreme in its avant-garde embrace. Mordant attack and sudden pizzicato expostulations blaze their way through this work without strangling opportunities for eerie asides, shuddering revelation and moments of strained lyricism. There are three other Wood quartets (1978, 1993, 2001). April Cantelo cannot be excelled in these songs. The witty way she points the words 'and tilted hind hooves' is matched by the bursting rhetorical conflagration and blast of the Pennines in April. These three songs are from Ted Hughes’ early collections The Hawk in the Rain and Lupercal. These are not conventional settings - this is after all Hugh Wood - but it is difficult to imagine them set to other music. The ringing operatic confidence of Wood’s Muir songs could hardly be projected with more volatile assurance than they receive from Paul Hamburger and April Cantelo. For an exemplary listening experience try The Bird which: an explosion of admiration veering over the precipice into ecstasy.

The second disc starts with two works by Rainier. Here we are recognisably in the same realm as Wood's Second Quartet - just a little further North. Intriguingly, though, Quanta does not deny the singing core of the oboe. One thinks in this work of Crosse's Ariadne and even of Malcolm Arnold's Oboe Concerto although the carapace is dissonant. Much the same can be said of the usually sterner format of the String Trio which ends with magical held-notes, arresting time. We then arrive at four cello and piano works. The Berkeley Duo represents a return to tonality even if a full engagement is constrained by Berkeley's natural reserve. The Fricker sonata in three movements and was written at Walton's home in Ischia.  Walton is the dedicatee. It is a work of turbulent severity, exciting in the first and riptide third movements and otherwise statuesque in  the manner of Hughes' Horses and lyrically expressive. Ten years after the Fricker comes Aberdonian, Martin Dalby's Variations. These are angular in the manner of Wood and Rainier. McCabe's Partita is stern and grave. It is again in the idiom of the times - the mid-1960s - yet with some lyrical 'give' as at 4:50.

The recording of the cello and piano works is excellent and compares favourably with the Rainier in terms of background ‘burble’. That said, the cello and piano recordings lack the centre-stage vivacity of the Rainier and the Wood.

These recordings all derive from British Council analogue material. They have survived well although the years have taken some slight toll on the Rainier recordings where the background noise is uneven. The recording of the Wood piece could hardly be more virile.

The words of the sung poems are printed.

Paul Conway's notes are, as ever, sure-footed in this repertoire. One hopes that he will write one of the great accounts of British music of the last century. He certainly has it in him.

A fascinating collection bound to stir memories or impressions from first time discovery but a satisfying listening experience even if you are encountering these iconic recordings for the first time.

  Rob Barnett


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