Hearing these two works side by side makes for fascinating listening. The Walton we know in the A minor Quartet, a composer quite clearly at the height of his powers, supremely confident and lucid in his inspiration, coupled with a tantalizing glimpse of a musical avenue that he ultimately chose not to pursue.
That is not to say that the early 1922 Quartet is devoid of any recognizably Waltonesque touches. Indeed as early as around 1:55 in the opening Moderato, the climax into the gently rocking lyrical material that follows will give the game away for some listeners. Overall however it is the shadow of Alban Berg that hovers over the work, the harmony surprisingly chromatic with an intense, at times deeply felt, lyricism particularly in the outer two movements. By contrast, whilst still incorporating passages of sometimes plaintive melancholy, the central Allegro molto vivace e ritmico is a gritty extended scherzo that brings to the mind the closely argued counterpoint of the Maconchy, or perhaps more tellingly, Bartók quartets. The booklet note tells of how the Emperor Quartet were sent the music by Oxford University Press, subsequently finding a multitude of errors and revisions between the composer's autographed score and the parts that they originally received. The music presented here therefore incorporates the cuts and alterations that are considered to reflect Walton's own final version of the piece. It may lack the concision and structural direction of his more mature works but on the evidence presented here this is a quartet that deserves to be heard.
On more familiar ground in the 1947 Quartet, the Emperor give a performance of impressive maturity for a relatively young ensemble. In contrast to the earlier work, the hallmarks of Walton's mature language are on display in abundance. The languorous opening of the initial Allegro subsequently transforms itself into a fugue of considerable substance. The brittle, biting scherzo and the touchingly poignant Lento which follows are coupled with the driving, jazz influenced syncopations of the Allegro molto finale. Throughout, the Emperor play with a deeply committed passion for the music, their rhythmic articulation taut, the tenderness of the Lento moving in its intensity. The dynamism and forward propulsion of the finale had me on the very edge of my seat and you can't ask for more than that!
This is probably the finest Black Box disc I have heard to date. The recorded sound is spot-on for the music, the acoustic natural and realistic. Above all the Emperor Quartet play with verve and panache, bringing a freshness to the later work that is particularly invigorating. Couple this with the first class performance of the 1922 Quartet and the result is a disc that I can whole-heartedly recommend to anyone with even a passing interest in Walton's music.