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Arnold Bax: String Quartets
No. 1 in G major; No. 2
Maggini Quartet
Naxos 8.555282


Last Modified November 18, 2001 


Naxos 8.555282

Review by Graham Parlett

Bax wrote five string quartets in all: two unpublished student works, and three published ones dating from 1918, 1925 and 1936. Of these Nos. 1 and 2 are quite different in character and make an ideal coupling.

The First is undoubtedly one of Bax's most relaxed and genial scores, and its early popularity resulted in two recordings on 78s, by the Griller and Wilson Quartets, of which the Grillers' is the better and cries out for reissue by Dutton. There were no recordings made of it in the LP era until the 1980s, when the English String Quartet recorded it for Chandos, who issued it on LP, cassette and CD. That performance is surpassed by this new one, which is a delight from beginning to end, and it is clear that the Maggini Quartet not only love the music but know it very well, having played it many times in concert. The Quartet in G, and especially the serenade-like first movement, is one of those pieces in which there is not a superfluous note and Bax never seems to put a foot wrong. It flows along effortlessly, as if it had sprung fully formed from the composer's mind. The melodic material is immediately attractive, and the discursiveness of which Bax is often accused is entirely absent. In his notes, Lewis Foreman points out a quotation from the piano piece A Romance - really no more than a passing resemblance - in the slow movement of the Second Quartet, but the middle section of the First Quartet's slow movement contains an even more obvious resemblance to the opening of A Romance (beginning on the cello just after letter D). The finale is a jovial rondo with a planxty-like episode (as in the finale of the Third Violin Sonata) and then a lyrical middle section that introduces one of Bax's most beautiful Irish-sounding melodies, which (as pointed out in the notes) may or may not be derived from a genuine folk-tune.

The Second Quartet is quite different, its first movement, which begins with a long unaccompanied rhapsodic line on cello alone, being in Bax's most acerbic vein. The opening gesture is reminiscent of a similar one in the Rhapsodic Ballad for unaccompanied cello, and the basic melodic shape, a leap of a fifth followed by repeated notes, can be found in many of Bax's works, such as the Overture, Elegy and Rondo (last movement), Winter Legends, and the Fantasy Sonata for harp and viola (second movement). The same idea can also be found in the North Country Christmas carol on which the brief piano piece O Dame get up and bake your pies (1945) is based; whether this is pure coincidence or whether Bax had subconsciously been aware of the carol long before he wrote his piano variations I have no idea. The first movement is one of the most difficult pieces by Bax to grasp at a single hearing, and the Maggini Quartet themselves claim that they felt like detectives when they eventually discovered the recapitulation. The only other commercial recording of the Second Quartet ever made is a very good one by the Mistry Quartet on Chandos. That CD is indispensable since it also contains the only recording so far of the monumental Piano Quintet. However, I find that the first movement of No. 2 comes off even better in this new recording: the faster speeds make it sound less discursive and episodic.

The second movement begins with a very chromatic melody that can sound rather cloying if overdone, but the Maggini Quartet manages to avoid making it sound too sugary. The finale is in the composer's most ebullient vein, starting with one of his wild dances and containing more fugato writing than is customary with Bax. Contrast is provided by a typically Baxian 'liturgical' theme that hovers around one note in the manner of a chant from the Russian Orthodox Church tradition. The Magginis play this section more slowly than the Mistrys, imbuing it with a more ethereal, elusive quality. The cantabile at eight bars after 13, with the first violin accompanied by descending harmonies played tremolando, is spine-tingling, and the transition back to the opening tempo is beautifully managed. The extended coda is performed with great vigour and brings the work to a rousing conclusion.

The Maggini Quartet plays both works magnificently and the sound quality and balance would be difficult to better. However, the printed documentation that comes with the disc contains a minor blunder - an A minor blunder, to be precise: the Second Quartet is designated on the disc itself and on the back of the paper insert as being in that key, which it most certainly is not. The work starts in E minor and ends in G major, while the slow movement begins and ends in F. Maybe somebody at Naxos got confused with Vaughan Williams's Second Quartet, which is in A minor. I hope that this silly mistake does not become enshrined in CD catalogues. Chandos made a similar error with its recording of Bax's Clarinet Sonata in D, which is down in the CD documentation as being in B flat. Never mind: the music itself is what counts, and I have no doubt that this splendid new release will win many new friends for Bax's chamber music - and of course for the incomparable Maggini Quartet.

Review by Simon Brackenborough

This was my first proper hearing of any of the Bax quartets and I have to say I was very impressed. I was very much looking forward to this, having recently heard the Maggini Quartet's superlative Vaughan Williams disc, and I was pleased to see that the standard had been maintained.

What strikes me about the First Quartet is its youthful exuberance and endlessly melodic counterpoint. The fine details of Bax's typically complex writing shone through with dazzling effect. The slow movement was also eloquently played, with one of Bax's most gorgeously simple melodies creating a beautiful opening. The misty, mysterious ending gave way to a harsh and vigorous dance in the third movement. There were some four-note patterns, repeated in octaves, that I remember sounding particularly brilliant and the "Irish" tune created a lovely break from all the rhythmical loudness.

The Second Quartet, completely contrasting with the First, showed the Maggini's true strength with a much more testing score. The cello solo at the beginning set the dark, mysterious mood wonderfully. The shifting textures and changing rhythms that came with the eventual four-part unification gave the movement an organic unity. Strong sets of chords, occasionally pizzicato, provided harsh respite from this monstrous music. Towards the end, however, there was some more romantic material high up in the violins that led to a hushed close, with the cello whispering the initial theme. Once again the attention to detail made this successful. The second movement, with its uneasy and ethereal opening chords, moved onto some mellow, thick-textured harmony that was as sweet and viscous as golden syrup. There were some interesting solos and counter-melodies, but the main mood of the movement was still quite cold. The last movement, however, I found much more frantic, with sharp, rhythmical motifs and unison melody making a brilliant contrast. The climax towards the end led to an energetic close -- a slightly lighter end to a sombre work. What I found most strange, though, was that a quartet in the key of A minor could have all three movements ending on a major chord (Ed. See Review Above). Still, a splendidly gripping performance and after their equally good Vaughan Williams CD, I can't see how anyone could acknowledge the Maggini Quartet as being anything but one of best recording Quartets around at the moment and without doubt one of the leading champions of British music. I also hope that these two quartets by Bax and those by Vaughan Williams, especially the very accessible First Quartet on this disc, will find a bigger niche in the 20th century quartet repertoire -- a dominion where foreign composers (especially Shostakovich) have had more then their fair share of exposure.

Review by Christopher Webber

The stock of Baxís chamber music is on the rise, with multiple CD versions available of many works and a growing number of live performances. Until now the three String Quartets have been left rather in the cold. There is no official version of the 3rd Quartet available; and the single versions of the 1st and 2nd, by the English and Mistry Quartets respectively on Chandos, have hardly set the world on fire. All the warmer welcome, then, for this remarkable issue.

The once-popular 1st - there were two complete recordings on 78s, as Lewis Foremanís note for this Naxos issue reminds us - is a strangely untroubled work for 1918. Previously it had struck me as one of Baxís blandest scores, disconcertingly Dvorakian, little more than pleasant blarney-water. Nothing of the kind! The Magginis etch in its myriad mood changes with quicksilver brilliance, everything is fresh and specific, light without being lightweight, a sweet joy from start to finish. The Quartet was dedicated to Elgar, who replied that he "liked the look of it"; and the slow movement at least shares the special quality of reserved, gentle sadness that marks his own chamber music of the period. This performance captures that deeper feeling as well as the gossamer filigree of the outer movements.

The 2nd comes off well, too. This is a more strongly characterised account than the impressively homogenous version from the Mistry. The extended cello solo at the start is almost startling, sounding for all the world like a belligerent, half-tipsy man spoiling for an argument, which is duly supplied by the replying viola. The intensity of this Quartet, written about the same time as the equally tempest-tossed 2nd Symphony, must be difficult to sustain; but again the Magginis pick up on every possible nuance with a delicacy that makes sure the long first movement never lapses into brown-study brooding. The end of the slow movement is played with a concentration of feeling which makes for something rich and strange. Unforgettable - like the whole disc.

I canít praise this CD too highly. The most impressive feature of the Magginiís British Series has been their ability to remould their playing style and sound for each work, an advantage which doubtless stems from their determination (firmly expressed in the interview with Richard Adams for this site) to quarry these works in concert before setting them down on disc. Every bar in these wonderful performances sounds freshly imagined, precise, alive and vital - no generalised Celtic Twilight here - and I look forward hugely to their performance of the 3rd, a work which combines the moods of the other two with an Eastern European flavour all its own. It will be no surprise if the Magginis follow up their recent, well-deserved Gramophone award with another for this revelatory CD.

Copyright ©  Christopher Webber