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Carducci String Quartet



Graham WHETTAM (1927-2007)
String Quartet No. 1 (1960-67) [24:10]
Oboe Quartet No. 2 The Bagpiper (1973) [17:44]
String Quartet No. 4 (1987) [24:39]
Jenny-Lee Keetley (oboe)
Carducci Quartet
rec. St Swithun's Church, Leonard Stanley, 2007. DDD


Graham Whettam had no formal musical education. This did nothing to hinder his productivity. There have been five symphonies, four string quartets and various pieces for chamber music. This brings us neatly to the disc in question.

It is stunningly recorded and has a wonderful plangent immediacy. The first string quartet was commissioned by Jack Brymer. It is dedicated to the composer-conductor Eugene Goossens who was a house guest of Whettam’s at the time of writing. The music moves from stabbing lyricism that has parallels with Tippett to the sort of desolation associated with Warlock's The Curlew. The drive and urgency carries over to the central scherzo.  The finale has the character of a tombeau - gravely reflective, emotion drained. It is impressive for a concentration that fitfully recalls the last two Bridge quartets. It ends in a mystical interplay of high harmonics. Having written an Oboe Quartet for Victor Swillens in 1960 Whettam returned to the medium a decade or so later. Again Whettam impresses with eldritch writing which moves between the singing heart of the oboe as reflected in the Arnold concerto to a Curlew like loneliness. The final Rondo skips along in a macabre cavort that might well recall the King Pest movement in Lambert's Summer's Last Will but crossed with the bagpipe skirl to be expected from the title. The Fourth Quartet's opening movement evolved from playing with the Arts Council's initials in music. This piece is concentratedly dissonant and more powerful than the other two works. Whettam likes long scherzos and that is what we get. This one is gritty, aggressive, macabre and flies along with a strong wingbeat. After a predominantly morose Passacaglia lit by an astringent cantabile comes a Rondo-Finale. This is again borne along by muscular and athletic propulsion. Even so, there is an enchanted still centre - quietly whistling, almost self-effacing, gently chafing. This rises to extended and memorable dominance in the last whispered three minutes.

This will certainly appeal if you already have the two Redcliffe Whettam CDs. Beyond that it should also be sought out if your tastes already centre around Frank Bridge, his later quartets, Oration and There is a Willow and the music of Bernard van Dieren and  Eugene Goossens.  As ever these are appallingly rough approximations but will give you some idea of what to expect. 

Before I close this review of a fascinating disc I would like to remind you of two other Whettam discs - this time orchestral. They have been  around since 2000-2001. The first is the Sinfonia Intrepida (1976) played by BBCSO/Sir Charles Mackerras. You can find it on Redcliffe RR016 and it plays for 44:11. It is of an analogue  recording made at Maida Vale on 8 October 1980. This is Whettam's second symphony and was written over a period from 1960 to 1976. The premiere was given in Liverpool by the RLPO/Groves. It is dedicated “to the memory of those who were slaughtered and in honour of the Phoenix I have seen in Europe: Warsaw, Rotterdam, Dresden”. As must be expected this is an intensely serious symphony written in three epic movements. A massive emotional surge can be felt goading along this emotionally turbulent music. It is as if Whettam taps into a community of tortured souls, of pain and bereavement. There is violence aplenty in the meaty outer movements and a degree of dissonance but no more than you might hear in middle period Arnold or in Shostakovich.  To me this evokes the stillness of dust settling, of dry throats and of ruinous landscapes. The 17 minute final movement draws on desolation and some dissonance but at first its character is statuesque and forbidding. After about four minutes snarling and skirling brass - already dominant in the first movement - combine with the impact of percussion to evoke the awe of devastation in the making. Gradually a more meditative mood enters through solo lines providing a trembling backdrop to tragic human experience. There is redemption or at least hope in a grandly roaring rhetorical finale - a gigantic bow-wave carrying all before it. 

The other Redcliffe CD is RR017. It includes the Concerto Drammatico for cello and orchestra (1998) [32:29] and the much earlier nuclear war-centred Sinfonia Contra Timore (1962) [27:30]. The Concerto is ably played by Martin Rummel with Ian Hobson conducting the Sinfonia da Camera in sessions dating from 2000. This is in three continuous sections; here separately tracked. The voice of the cello is never flattened by the orchestra. In fact Whettam allows only light and transparent contributions where the cello addresses the listener. It comes as no surprise that he also wrote a solo cello sonata. At other times the cello is silent. By now the intensely powerful and serious language used by Whettam comes as no surprise.  Difficult to draw parallels but this music does at times sound like Walton but this is a Walton with a scarifying abrasion built into its fabric. The outer two of the three movements were written in 1962 about the same time as the Sinfonia contra timore. The finale ends in a magically poised confiding tremor and whisper - almost a benediction - as if the composer was speaking to a loved one. The premiere of the Concerto was given by these artists on 30 September 2000 at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. 

The Sinfonia Contra Timore is played by the Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra - now the Mitteldeutsche Rundfunk sinfonieorchester. Apart from some rumbling imperfections at the start this October 1975 recording has come up very cleanly. In the first of the three movements the music has an air of Malcolm Arnold at his most impudent and apocalyptic. A searing trumpet at 2:58 and the following guttural shudders do nothing to dispel the parallel. Arching melancholy carried in large part by the strings pervades the central Adagio. The finale moves between Whettam's trademark intimation of desolation to a rhythmic energy jauntily propelled by trumpets and Schuman-hot percussion including anvil. The dedication of the work seems to have been taken as a red rag to a bull. He wrote “To Bertrand Russell and all other people who suffer imprisonment or other injustice for the expression of their beliefs or the convenience of politicians and bureaucracies.” Local political intervention brought about the withdrawal of the work from its announced Liverpool world premiere in 1964. Birmingham picked up the dropped honour and it was the enterprising and perceptive but unglamorous Hugo Rignold who gave the premiere with the CBSO on 25 February 1965. These same forces were soon to record Arthur Bliss’s Music for Strings and Blow Meditation for Lyrita. 

Whettam owes much in recent years to the advocacy of Francis Routh and of Paul Conway. His remains a gripping voice in the annals of British music – potently serious yet mysteriously ignored.
Rob Barnett



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