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Northern Lights – British String Quartets
John CASKEN (b.1949)
String Quartet No.2 (1993 revised 1996) [21:16]
Judith WEIR (b.1954)
String Quartet (1990) [13:10]
Robert SAXTON (b.1953)
Songs, Dances and Ellipses (1997 revised 1998) [28:04]
Kreutzer Quartet
rec. St John’s Church, Loughton, Essex January 2002 (Casken); September 2000 (Weir) and December 1999 (Saxton)
METIER MSV28507 [63:02]
Experience Classicsonline

These three British composers were born within half a decade in the years between 1949 and 1954. The disc’s title is a fetching though not wholly appropriate one on which to peg the three quartets. Best to listen to them without worrying about  ‘Northernness’ or matters astronomical, though the last does play a part in the Saxton.

John Casken wrote his Second Quartet in 1993 and it was revised three years later. It’s cast in four movements each one bearing an indication such as ‘with piquant verve’ or ‘with haunted fascination’. I suppose it’s up the interpreters to convey ‘piquancy’ with the requisite relish. In fact the Kreutzer Quartet has been solidly coached by the composer so are in a better position than most to transit his wishes. The first movement oscillates between firefly vivacity and a more mellow lyrical-expressive line. The second movement is a scherzo of ‘jazzy obstinacy’ – make of that what you will - whilst the third is a slow movement of considerable post-impressiontic colour and reflective and refractive intimacy, one lit by little flurries. Ravel-like pizzicati animate the finale, full of vibrancy, but towards the end stronger, more personal intimations intrude and the work ends in slight ambiguity.

I was aware of Judith Weir’s 1990 Quartet from The Cold Dancer - Contemporary String Quartets from Scotland on Delphian DCD34038 where it was coupled with works by James Clapperton, Kenneth Dempster and William Sweeney. It’s also on Genuin GEN86065 adventurously coupled with Elgar and Maxwell Davies, so it’s something of a disc veteran by now. It pushes for what Weir calls “on the string” lyricism. Each of the three movements is based on a Spanish romance (first two) and a Scottish ballad (for the finale). The writing has her accustomed grace and generosity – in the central movement it also embraces earthier, vocalised beauties of its own. It sounds very rewarding to play. My recollection is that the Delphian performance was just a tad more austere than the Kreutzer, and the latter group certainly enjoys the folkloric second in particular where the rhythmic energy is palpable.

Finally we have Songs, Dances and Ellipses by Robert Saxton, written in 1997 and revised the following year. Once again, as with the Casken, the composer supervised the recording session. This work has five movements though moves sinuously in one span. It opens in Mahlerian midst with tension increasing, moving to a tempestuous but still austere second section, marked ‘light, dancing’. The heart of the work is the long, ten-minute third movement – a spacious stasis that grips and doesn’t let go. There’s a scherzo-like incisiveness to the succeeding movement and a driving then winding-down energy to the finale.

There are some good, helpful notes and the sound quality in a church that’s almost down my road (pure coincidence) is first class. These recordings have been on the shelf for a long time; they were recorded between 1999 and 2002. Well done to Metier for giving them the oxygen of publicity.

Jonathan Woolf 



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