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Alfred HILL (1869-1960)
String Quartets - Volume 1
String Quartet No.1 in B flat major Maori (c.1889-1897) [22:34]
String Quartet No.2 in G minor A Maori legend in Four Scenes (1907-11) [22:14]
String Quartet No.3 in A minor The Carnival (1913) [20:34]
Dominion Quartet
rec. Expressions Theatre, Upper Hutt, New Zealand, May and October 2006 
NAXOS 8.570491 [65:41]


Australian-born and New Zealand-raised Alfred Hill has long held an important place in Antipodean musical life. A substantial biography by John Mansfield Thomson exists and recordings have attested to his pioneering place in the culture of his native land(s). With the release of this budget label disc devoted to the first three quartets – the entire corpus of Hill’s quartets is to be released in due course by Naxos– the wider public can get to know him more as a composer and less as a footnote.

The First Quartet is a student work and my date of 1889-1897 in the head note is very loose; this relates to the commencement of the work during his Leipzig days and the subsequent post-1896 replacement of the two inner movements to incorporate some “Maori” ideas. He’d certainly immersed himself in the quartet repertoire when in Germany and was seemingly intent on cribbing from Dvořák and adding some Borodin and fusing it with mid-century, maybe Mendelssohnian warmth. The second movement has a nice trio and a rather cocky profile though it still cleaves to Bohemian models with plenty of folkloric drive (hard to define as at all Maori) and the finale has a coquettish turn of phrase that amuses. Its rather winsome dance opens out into a broad folkloric panel. The playing is committed but uneven. Intonation wanders and ensemble is not always watertight.

The Second Quartet dates from 1907-11. Once again the influence is Dvořák, not the perhaps expected heavy-duty Brahms. The narrative sense of the work is more convincing than the earlier work’s barely assimilated models. The pizzicato woodpecker for instance is appealing, a little naïve maybe, but still full of  felicitous colour.  The second movement however has a sparse, reflective, rather dreamlike intimacy of expression and manages to embrace atmospheric expression in to the bargain. The finale is vibrant, exciting and much more clearly and analytically thought through than the finale of the student quartet.

A couple of years after having finished the G minor he finished the Third Quartet subtitled The Carnival. It was expanded many years later in the 1955 Carnival Symphony [No.5] – Hill is probably still best known for his symphonic and operatic writing. It has some very beautiful moments, lyric and intense, but also the expected rusticities of Dvořák – note the way the cello pizzicati underpins so much of the verdency of this kind of writing; and the wheezy articulation that generates the folk hues. The finale sails close to Bohemian and Russian music, songful, eventful and with Hill whipping up a fine dance to end the quartet with real fire.

The recorded sound is generally good and the performances, as noted, occasionally wayward – though that’s mainly confined to the First Quartet. I’ve not heard any rival recordings of these three quartets but it will be interesting to see how the Dominion shapes up against the Australian Quartet [Marco Polo 8.223746] in the Fifth, Sixth and Eleventh. 

Jonathan Woolf




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