Chandos’s McEwen Quartet
series continues apace. Volume Three
delves back to the early 1898 Quartet
and as far forward as the 1936 Fifteenth.
The mid-period Eighth completes the
trio of fascinating retrievals. As ever
our guides are the Chilingirian Quartet.
Their command of texture and transparency
is just right for these works – allied
to which their crisp rhythmic sense
serves equally well in the more propulsive
and aerial moments.
The Second dates from
1898 when McEwen was thirty and a newly
appointed professor at the Royal Academy
of Music. It’s an essentially conventional
work in four movements but the cloistered
harmonies and little first movement
march herald promise of things to come.
The second movement first violin lament
is treated with great care by McEwen
and is beautifully and richly harmonised.
Whereas we are introduced to a slightly
more forthright McEwen in the finale,
which is full of dance and drive, and
in its control of metrics shows something
influence – speeding up joyously for
a folk-laced finale. The Eighth dates
from 1918 but apparently received its
first performance only in 1927 when
it was given by the Virtuoso Quartet
– good friends of British chamber music
and led by one of the country’s
most admirable players, Marjorie Hayward.
Cast in three movements this is an adventurous
and likeable work with a songful but
never over-bright first movement and
a gravely sweet Larghetto, tied by a
strong cello anchor. The finale is a
delicious Allegretto, pizzicato-laced
and impelling itself towards a rather
stern, retrospectively meaningful conclusion.
It’s a work that gathers momentum and
meaning as it goes and leaves one reflecting
on its sub-textual significance (if
any, of course).
This leaves the Little
Quartet – so-called - No.15 of 1936.
Once again this is written in three
movements. In the first McEwen achieves
a rare transparency of texture in which
the folk-like tunes are interwoven –
I was going to write ‘embedded’ but
that doesn’t begin to convey the apposite
technical skill with which McEwen does
it. His delicacy is laced with Debussian
and Ravelian harmonic complexity in
the slow movement. The finale, in "reel
time," is launched with some feisty
droning – some of the writing is explicitly
"Scottish". McEwen’s rhythmic
mobility and dexterity are always exciting
and he also conjures up fluting, flighting
sonorities that summon up a convulsive
animation from all four players. This
is delightful and clever writing and
we’ve waited a long time to hear it
McEwen’s quartet admirers
will snap this up – and we await the
next instalment with greedy enthusiasm.
see also review
by Rob Barnett