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Arnold BAX (1883–1953)
String Quartet No.1 in G [23:12]
Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
String Quartet in E minor, op.83 [26:12]
Pavão Quartet (Kerenza Peacock (violin); Jenny Sacha (violin); Natalia Grimes (viola); Bryony James (cello))
rec. St Mary’s Church, Hanwell, June 2007
DISCRETE RECORDINGS DISC0701 [49:24]


What a sensible coupling this is! Both written in 1918, by future Masters of the King’s Musick, the younger man’s work dedicated to the older. And how well they sit together, Bax’s work full of youthful spirits, Elgar’s autumnal peace. I use the word ‘peace’ in light of Elgar’s response to the war.
 
In 1901 the Bax family went to Malvern on holiday and it was there that the two composers met. Bax had a friend, George Adler who lived nearby and knew Elgar. It was he who suggested that they pay the older man a visit. They walked to Birchwood to find that Elgar was out but were invited to wait in the garden where they were met by Mrs Elgar (as she then was). “Almost at once she began to speak enthusiastically and a little extravagantly about her wonderful husband and his work. ‘Oh, here he is!’ cried Mrs Elgar, and I rose and turned with suddenly thudding heart to be introduced to the great man … He was not a big man, but such was the dominance of his personality that I always had the impression that he was twice as large as life … He was still sore over the Gerontius fiasco at Birmingham in the previous autumn, and enlarged interestingly upon the subject ... ‘Critics’ snapped the composer with ferocity. ‘My dear boy, what do critics know about anything?’ Knocking out his pipe, he suggested that we might like to have a glance at a huge kite that he had recently constructed … On being told that I intended to devote myself to composition Elgar made no comment beyond a grimly muttered ‘God help him!’” (Arnold Bax: Farewell My Youth (Longmans, Green and Co, 1943)).
 
Bax dedicated his Quartet to Elgar in remembrance of the 1901 visit, describing it as “an unforgettable day” and making mention of “all the pleasure your music has given me.” Elgar responded positively, saying that he “liked the look of it.”
 
I’ve often wondered why Bax dedicated this work to Elgar, except as a sop, because the music has nothing whatsoever to do with Malvern, but is filled with Bax’s beloved Ireland; the slow movement is surely a lament for the dead of the 1916 rising and the finale is an unashamed reel. It’s a superb work and it comes as no surprise to discover that it was recorded twice, during the composer’s lifetime, on 78s (Marie Wilson Quartet (National Gramophone Society NGS 153/155) and the Griller Quartet (Decca K1009/12)) and between its publication, in 1923, and World War 2 it was one of the most frequently played British quartets.
 
Elgar’s three late chamber compositions – the Violin Sonata, op.92, the Piano Quintet, op.84 and this String Quartet, op.83 – and the Cello Concerto, op.85, are filled with nostalgia. The war had changed Elgar’s perception of people and the world in general. He’d also had a tonsillectomy – his doctor suspecting Menière’s Disease (now accepted to be an incorrect diagnosis). Recuperation took time, and Alice’s health began to fail, starting simply with colds but getting worse until her death in 1920. Taking a cottage at Brinkwells in Sussex, away from the hurly-burly of wartime life in London, Elgar revelled in carpentry and living the life of a man of the land, which, despite what he said and did, he wasn’t; certainly not in the way he would have liked. He was a composer and the urge to write music slowly returned to him. I have the feeling that these final four major works are, in some ways, connected. Three of them are in E minor - the Quintet is in A minor. There is a restrained quality to all the music. Even when he seems to be in high spirits there’s a sadness behind the jollity - the opposite of the clown who wants to play Lear, perhaps. There’s also a hesitancy, a new maturity, based on what I believe to be Elgar’s perception of himself as a failure. This was brought about through self doubt and a failure to understand that in reality he was a man fully in command of his abilities but one who was always at the whim of his own feelings.
 
This all reminds me of the famous story told of the clown Grimaldi, which was later also told of Grock, about the man who goes to his doctor as he is overwhelmed by a sadness and believes that he will never recover from this malady. The doctor tells the man that he should do something to make him happy, such as go to see Grimaldi/Grock as that would certainly cheer him up, whereupon the man sorrowfully tells the doctor, “But I am Grimaldi/Grock!”
 
Elgar was truly a man tormented by his lot and these minor key works are imbued with these feelings. The Quartet is hesitant in its starting; the music slips, almost imperceptibly, into our consciousness. There are no grand gestures here, just the steady, and inevitable, working out of musical ideas. Indeed, this is one of the most classical of all Elgar’s opening movements, understated and wistful. The slow movement is a simple and songlike affair, described by Alice as “captured sunlight”. Some time later when listening to a recording of the work, Troyte Griffith said to Elgar “Surely that is as fine as a movement by Beethoven”, to which the composer replied, “Yes it is, and there is something in it that has never been done before.” Troyte asked what this was and Elgar, always one to hide his genius under a bushel, replied, “Nothing you would understand, merely an arrangement of notes.” (Jerrold Northrop Moore, Edward Elgar - A Creative Life (Oxford University Press, 1984)). How easily he could write off his subtle and complicated way of composition. The music, and fair copy, of this slow movement was completed a fortnight after the Armistice, and two weeks after that Alice had to be taken to London to see a specialist. A few days after their return home Elgar began the finale. Although a fast movement, with jagged, agitated, figures, there is a feeling of resignation, gone is the forward thrusting momentum so usual in Elgar’s final movements. The whole work is tinged with melancholy – it is truly a work of autumn - and the Pavão Quartet bring out all the pathos and world-weariness Elgar pours into his only work in this medium.
 
Neither of these works have been given their true due, despite each having at least four recordings over the years. The Elgar also receives relatively regular live performances. It is to be hoped that this excellent new disk will go some way to showing us exactly what a treasure trove of fine music is hidden under the seemingly innocuous title of ‘string quartet’.
 
The photograph of the players on the booklet is amusing. The members of the quartet are made up in a kind of pre-Raphaelite way suggestive of chastity. Considering Bax’s lustiness with the ladies and Elgar’s flirtatious manner this seems most inapt! Also, beware the notes in the booklet. Good though they are, the printing is so small that even with the aid of my reading glasses it was a strain to see them. But it’s the music which truly matters, and musically, this disk is an unqualified success. A truly fabulous disk! A real must-have! A record of the year. I think you understand me.
 
Bob Briggs
 



 


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