Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
String Quartet No. 1 in G minor
String Quartet No. 2 in A minor
Maggini Quartet, with Garfield
Rec 13th-15th June 2000, Potton Hall, Suffolk
Vaughan Williams's chamber music is neglected, and for that reason alone
this new issue to be welcomed. There are few recordings available, and few
performances are given, save of the song cycle with piano quintet, Wenlock
Edge, which in any case somewhat stretches the definition of chamber
Naxos has developed an impressive commitment to the neglected aspects of
the repertoire, not least in British music, and in the Maggini Quartet they
have chosen artists whose vision and skill are perfect for encouraging a
wider awareness of this interesting music. The fact that the two quartets
span a period of some thirty-five years makes the disc all the more intriguing.
The Quartet No. 1 is the earliest of three works coupled here, though
Vaughan Williams did revise it in 1921, some thirteen years after he originally
wrote it. But that 1908 provenance remains significant, not least because
that was the year that Vaughan Williams spent several months living in Paris,
studying with no less a figure than Maurice Ravel (who was three years his
junior). This experience was essential to VW's development as a composer;
is it any coincidence that the achievement of his true genius followed almost
immediately? For instance, the Tallis Fantasia and the Sea
Symphony were composed within about eighteen months of this period in
In this context the Quartet No. 1 takes on a special interest, and the Ravel
influence, which Vaughan Williams described as his 'French fever', is palpable.
At just under thirty minutes, this is a substantial work in four movements,
with subtle developments and occasional traces of folksong. The rhythmic
vitality can also be compelling, particularly in the finale, marked Rondo
Capriccioso. The music is well served by the Maggini Quartet and by the
Naxos engineers too.
The Phantasy Quintet, composed in 1912, adds an extra viola part to
the string quartet. This is taken by Garfield Jackson, who blends effortlessly
with his colleagues, and contributes also to the virtuoso playing in the
scherzo, whose Prestissimo marking insists that it should be played
as quickly as humanly possible. And in that regard these players do not
The Quartet No. 2 is a later piece, composed during the Second World
War when Vaughan Williams was preparing for the first performance of the
Fifth Symphony. The premiere took place the following year, at a National
Gallery concert in 1944, when the dedicatee was the violist of the Menges
Quartet, Jean Stewart. Not surprisingly, it is the viola which receives a
special focus, almost leading the ensemble for much of the time. This composer
always had a special love of the viola, and it has some wonderful music here,
for example in the second movement Romance, which it opens and closes.
The finale of the Quartet is particularly effective, and particularly affecting
too. This Epilogue is beautifully serene, a veritable benediction
entitled Greetings from Joan to Jean, since it was originally conceived
for a film project about Joan of Arc.
At the bargain Naxos price, this disc represents quite extraordinary value,
and it also adds something special to our awareness of the composer's
Hubert Culot has also been listening to this disc
Vaughan Williams' String Quartet in G minor was completed after his
brief studies with Ravel (he revised it later in 1921), and though partly
influenced by Ravel, the music is unmistakably Vaughan Williams throughout.
It is also his most classically conceived piece. Its four movements adhere
to the traditional pattern: the opening Allegro is followed by a lively
Scherzo (Minuet and Trio) whereas the beautifully lyrical
Romanza is offset by the folk-like rumbustious Finale. Vaughan
Williams' First String Quartet is a wonderful, luminous piece that is still
too little heard nowadays.
The Second String Quartet was written much later and is a more adventurous
work than its predecessor. It is dedicated to Jean Stewart, violist of the
Menges Quartet, which is why the viola always plays the leading role. The
viola introduces the first movement with an impassioned theme on which much
of the ensuing music is based. The viola also starts the somewhat enigmatic
Romanza. The mood of this long, questing movement is one of tranquil,
though by no means appeased meditation. The opening of the troubled Scherzo
is again by the viola with a theme from RVW's film score The 49th
Parallel. Both the Romanza and the Scherzo undoubtedly
bear the imprint of the war years. The Epilogue, based on a theme
written for a film score and unused as such, has the same consolatory strains
as the final Passacaglia of the Fifth Symphony completed at about
the same time. The Second String Quartet is a masterpiece of Vaughan Williams'
last decade, and again too rarely heard.
The somewhat shorter Phantasy Quintet of 1912 , cast in Cobbett's
beloved phantasy mould, is one of RVW's long-neglected minor masterpieces.
Its four contrasted sections, played without break, make for one of Vaughan
Williams' most delightful works. The opening of the Prelude (again
started by the second viola) could not be by anyone else. The Prelude
leads into the lively, rhythmically tricky Scherzo in turn flowing
into the beautifully poised Alla Sarabanda. The quintet ends with
a folksy, rumbustious Burlesca bringing this lovely work to a brilliant,
The Maggini Quartet have already put us in their debt for their superb Naxos
recordings released so far: Bridge, Britten, Walton and most outstandingly
- Moeran. And much is still to come: Bax, Bridge and Bliss among others (and
hopefully some more recent quartets either written for them or first performed
by them). Again they prove highly competent and sympathetic performers of
British music, and their playing and understanding of these magnificent,
though still too little-known works by Vaughan Williams is remarkable.