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Alfred HILL (1869-1960)
String Quartets - Volume 5
String Quartet No.12 in E major (1936) [20:43]
String Quartet No.13 in E flat major (1936) [20:21]
String Quartet No.14 in B minor (1937) [24:49]
Dominion Quartet
rec. May, June 2012, Park Road Post, Wellington, New Zealand.
NAXOS 8.573267 [66:10]

Naxos and the Dominion Quartet continue with the String Quartets of Alfred Hill. This disc follows one offering Numbers 10 and 11 and a Quintet. That disc was reviewed in March 2012 and details previous reviews of this series can be found there alongside those for an earlier one on Marco Polo.

For those, like me, for whom Alfred Hill is a new name some background maybe helpful. He was born in Australia but spent much of his early years in New Zealand. He then went to study in Leipzig and was a pupil of both Brahms and Dvorak. The latter composer has always been cited as an influence on his early quartets; he wrote seventeen in all.

Quartet Number 12 commences with a cello solo in the Adagio before developing into the Allegro. If I’d listened to this “blind” my first instinct would have been that this was by Dvorak although there is a definite early twentieth century influence as well. This seems light years from what Bartók and the Second Viennese School were achieving at the same time but is certainly pleasant. A Humoreske follows which is quite skittish. The third movement Reverie is mainly lead by the cello again and has a wistful quality. The work ends with a spirited Finale and despite lacking strong individuality, on its own terms as late nineteenth century inspired music it succeeds.

Quartet Number 13 begins with what seems an atonal style only to revert to the more conventional Allegro Molto where Hill seems to be exploring a variety of melodies. This is a greater work than its predecessor an impression reinforced by the succeeding movements. The Scherzo is lively but shows that Hill had a good understanding of how to write for the mdeium. Barcarolle is another of the dreamy movements in which Hill seems to excel. The interplay between first and second violins is very well accomplished and the empathy of the four players is most effective in this an impressionistic movement. The quartet ends with a mellifluous and contrapuntal finale, which is most beguiling and which again harks back to Dvorak. As with the previous quartet, Hill adapted the work into a symphony. Interestingly George Tintner, later famous for his Bruckner symphony recordings, recorded this in 1975. You will have gathered that I was taken by this quartet and, whilst it is difficult to gauge, the playing of the Dominion Quartet is very fine.

The final Quartet here — Quartet Number 14 — starts off in more serious mode. It has more than a whiff of Tchaikovsky, a composer Hill met during his studies. The first two movements have a great deal in common but whereas in previous movements certain instruments have dominance, here Hill spreads the thoughtful melody between the four players. The feeling is of a deeper musical work than previously and there is an elegiac quality that is most appealing. The Menuet is quite understated and sounds as if it utilises a folk melody. It’s certainly not an easy dance tune and continues the darker nature of this work. The Quartet ends with a Finale, which again uses the contrapuntal texture that Hill studied in his days in Leipzig. The movement begins with ominous chords before breaking out into another of those melodies that are such a strong Hill characteristic. Thus ends a work that whilst harking back to a previous generation has considerable depth and would be great to hear in concert.

This disc must be considered a success and should appeal strongly to lovers of late nineteenth century music who want to explore. Nothing of what I have heard suggests that Hill was more than a highly accomplished if unoriginal composer but these works make for an enjoyable and absorbing hour.

The playing and recording are first rate and the notes by Donald Maurice are very useful for listeners who in the main will not know this music. I would certainly be pleased to hear other installments in this series and look forward to Volume Six.

David R Dunsmore