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The British Book
Judith WEIR (b. 1954)
String Quartet (1990) [13:27]
Edward ELGAR (1857–1934)
String Quartet in E minor Op.83 (1918) [26:11]
Peter MAXWELL DAVIES
(b. 1934)

Little Quartet No.1 (1980) [8:50]
Little Quartet No.2 (1977, rev. 1987) [4:03]
Reinhold-Quartett
rec. MDR Chorsaal, Augustplatz, Leipzig, April, December 2005
GENUIN GEN 86065 [52:59]
 


Elgar’s String Quartet is one of three substantial chamber works that he composed during World War I. Here it is by far the most substantial work in this intriguing release from a label new to me. I will not, however, dwell too long on it since it is sufficiently well-known and recorded, and will rather consider the other works that make for a nice contrast to Elgar’s masterpiece.
 
Judith Weir’s music is now reasonably well represented on disc; but, curiously enough, her attractive String Quartet composed in 1990 has never been recorded before. The music is mostly song-like throughout its three short and concise movements: actually two songs without words capped by a very short Presto epilogue. A remarkable feature of this beautiful work is that the composer dispenses with “new” playing techniques such as col legno, snap pizzicato and the like, and successfully uses the strings in the most traditional manner to achieve her expressive aims. The music is characteristic of Weir’s thinking, in that it achieves strong expression within a comparatively short span of time and by keeping her material strictly under control. She never tries to make things bigger than they really are. She goes straight to the point by a tight formal balance, so that the music never outstays its welcome. A most welcome addition to her ever-growing discography.
 
As far as concision goes, Peter Maxwell Davies’s Little Quartets are certainly entitled to be counted among the shortest string quartets ever composed. One might be tempted to compare them with  Webern’s Bagatellen or Kurtag’s Microludes; but these works do not aim at competing with either Webern’s or Kurtag’s pieces in terms of sheer musical weight which these composers achieve with a minimum of notes. In fact, Davies’ pieces were composed as occasional works. The Little Quartet No.1 was for Sir William Glock in memory of his daughter. It is in three short movements, two slow, mainly elegiac ones framing a nervous Scherzo. The Little Quartet No.2 was composed before the first. It was written in 1977 for a festival in Montepulciano, but was lost in the mail. Ten years later, the composer rewrote it from sketches. Unlike No.1, it is in a single movement roughly cast in sonata form with a slow coda. These two works can hardly be regarded as important in Davies’ output, but are still well worth hearing, the more so because they may now be considered as try-outs for more substantial works. By the time he had composed the two Little Quartets, PMD could not know that he would embark on his Naxos Quartets project, now well under way.
 
World War I was a traumatic experience for Elgar although he was too old to take part in the fighting. The Great War signalled that the world in which he had lived was falling apart and that things would no longer be as they were. This is strongly reflected in the nostalgic nature of much of the music of his String Quartet, although the quartet ends with an energetic Allegro molto, that Lady Elgar described as “the galloping of squadrons”, which is probably too far-fetched. The last movement may certainly not be described as triumphant or optimistic. The often rugged energy of the music belies that possibility.
 
The Reinhold-Quartet plays beautifully throughout. Their carefully prepared readings are undoubtedly very fine. I do not know many versions of the Elgar String Quartet, but I liked what the Reinhold did with it. A welcome release, this, although the total playing time is ungenerous.
 
Hubert Culot

 

 



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