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Rutland BOUGHTON (1878-1960)
String Quartet in F major 'From the Welsh Hills' (1923)
(Landscape from the valleys [7'13]; Landscape from the hilltops [7'45]; Satire (Conversation) [3'13]; Song of the Hills [9'11])
Oboe Quartet No 1 (1932)
(Allegro vivace [4'55]; Allegro giocoso [1'40]; Andante con variazione [8'10])
String Quartet in A major 'On Greek Folk Songs' (1923)
(Apollonian [7'48]; Dionysian [4'13]; Threnody [7'27]; Aphrodisian [7'40])
Three Songs without Words for oboe quartet (c.1937)
(Whence! Andante delicato [2'25]; Faery Flout Allegro giocoso [1'47]; Barcarolle Andante languido [4'43])
Sarah Francis (oboe)
The Rasumovsky Quartet (Frances Mason (violin) (oboe quartet); Marilyn Taylor (violin); Christopher Wellington (viola); Joy Hall (cello))
Recorded on 29-31 October 1996

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The quartets were written on the crest of a wave for Boughton – musical and personal. His huge success with The Immortal Hour was paralleled by domestic happiness in his marriage – his third – to Kathleen. Both quartets followed in rapid succession, the A major first and the F major soon afterwards. Hyperion leads with the latter work so let’s start there.

In four broad movements and subtitled 'From the Welsh Hills' this is propelled by radiant lyricism. The opening movement is warmly melodic, taking in some mild chromaticism, but essentially easeful and relaxed. The folk tunes are enforced by thinning the quartet textures to just the two fiddles or by having a drone cello animate the colour of the writing. The second movement is Boughton’s “Green and Gold” movement – he added colour descriptive titles along with the idea of Welsh topography (Landscape from the Hilltops and Song of the Hills are two of the four titles). Here we find a more rarefied command of melody and timbre whilst in the third he bemoans the visitor-trampled hotel on Snowdonia with facetious metropolitan chatter in Satire - subtitled Conversation – which surely features laughter, in the shape of fast trills, and a bit of ballsy fugato just to rub it in. Darkly burnished folk melody emerges in the finale – note especially the viola – but it gradually lightens in tone and ends in radiant affirmation. I can imagine that some, say those now enjoying the quartets of John McEwen, will find the similarly neglected quartets of Boughton rather unconvincing in terms of depth and breadth of influence and allusion, but enjoyed on their own terms they still offer real rewards.

The same is true of the Greek Quartet, which is less obviously outgoing than the Welsh work but cleverly laid out for the four instruments and once again saturated with folkloric influence. The first movement, marked Apollonian runs straight into the Dionysian second. But rather than the heady sound world maybe suggested we get instead a folk like scherzo, with plenty of unison and answering figures, infectious accents and rhythmic variety; things are vaguely Greek sounding, at a pinch, since it was partly derived form music Boughton wrote for a 1922 production at Glastonbury of Sophocles’ The Tracinae. Perhaps the most exotic moments are in this movement – an exotic melody line over thrummed pizzicati. The third movement is a memorial to Sheerman Hand, a friend of Boughton’s, which utilises a strong cello tread and is measured, moving but not too much of a threnody to unbalance the formal structure of the work. Fresh and bracing the finale sweeps it all away.

We also have the Oboe Quartet No.1 written for Joy, the composer’s daughter. There’s plenty of VW lyricism here in a first movement of regular sonata form, brightened by a perky little fugato. The second movement’s a slip of a scherzo, joy-fully bright indeed, whilst the finale is a clever and rewarding series of variations. Textually this is much the richest movement, though it still takes in that old folk lyricism as well, and ends a well-crafted and thoroughly enjoyable work. To end there are the Three Songs Without Words again for oboe quartet. Listen to the pixie ring swagger of the second or, most unusually in the context of this disc, to the wash of impressionism that animates the Barcarolle third. Hypnotic ease is guaranteed.

There’s no faulting the skill and sensitivity of Sarah Francis and The Rasumovsky Quartet in this repertoire. Their rhythm never merely basks in Boughton’s melodies; they’re always attentive to nuance and colour. They keep things alive. If you like this Cobbett Prize generation of British quartet writers you’ll love Boughton. Come on record companies, William Fenney, Joseph Speaight and Waldo Warner next please!

Jonathan Woolf

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