This is a magnificent disc; one which will give great
pleasure to all lovers of Vaughan Williams, as well as a few haters.
There are those who are unconvinced by his pastoral (more uncharitable
critics call it cow-pat) style of English folksiness. At its
best, however, his music has a beautiful, calm quality, with gorgeous
harmonies and melodic lines. This music is towards the finer end of
his range of compositions.
First and foremost amongst the qualities of this recording
is the playing of the Maggini Quartet. Never less than immaculate, their
playing is all that you could wish for in advocates of lesser known
works: technically excellent and impassioned by a real belief in the
These three pieces, written at various stages of his
career are similar in style, all influenced to some extent by the string
quartet of Maurice Ravel, written only five years before Vaughan Williams’
first attempt at the genre. Then again, which young composer, unconvinced
by the prevailing Romantic excess and harmonic outlandishness, would
not regard this amazing work as a beacon? RVW briefly took lessons from
the French master, and the same coolness of tone is obvious in this
music. What might surprise listeners aware only of The Lark Ascending
is the drama which RVW generates in these works. The opening movement
of the first quartet is full of bold gestures, and this performance,
rhythmically precise with a fantastic range of dynamics, brings them
off brilliantly. Whether the gestures add up to a unified whole is open
to debate, but the piece can be enjoyed as a series of events when they
are played as wonderfully as this.
The second quartet is the latest work here, a wartime
piece that juxtaposes stridency and serenity. The emotional heart of
the piece is the second movement Romanza, and the Magginis capture
this by not only playing it beautifully, but by heightening the drama
of the surrounding first and third movements.
The quartet is supplemented by the viola of Garfield
Jackson for the Phantasy Quintet, the sleeve notes granting the violist
a prominence that misleadingly looks like solo billing. The Quintet
in facts uses the extra voice to build richer textures (listeners might
be reminded of the Fifth Symphony). Jackson blends beautifully, creating
a range of colours that bring the piece to life.
For all their qualities, these are not pieces that
belong in the very highest echelons of the quartet repertoire, but the
excellent performances on this disc bring their pleasures very much
to the fore. Only a total anti-VWite would be disappointed.
Naxos hits the bullseye again, as truly excellent performances
bring these lesser known works to life. Essential for all Vaughan Williams
lovers, very important for everyone else.
also reviews by Terry Barfoot and Hubert Culot