> John Blackwood McEwen - String Quartets Vol. 1 [JF]: Classical CD Reviews- Jun2002 MusicWeb(UK)






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John Blackwood McEwen (1868-1948)
String Quartets Volume 1
Quartet No. 16 'Quartette Provençale' (1936)
Quartet for Strings No.7 'Threnody' (1916)
Quartet No. 4 (1905)
Fantasia for String Quartet No. 17 (1947)
Chilingirian Quartet
Recorded at Snape Maltings Concert Hall 19/20 February 2001; 9/10 November 2001 (No.4)
CHANDOS CHAN 9926 [68.49]


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The chamber music of Sir John Blackwood McEwen is most likely an unknown quantity for the vast majority of listeners. In fact the entire corpus of this underestimated composer is probably unexplored territory for all but the most persistent of British Music enthusiasts. To be fair some people will be aware of the odd piano piece or maybe one of the tone poems. However, Chandos have done a great service to this Scottish composer. Recently, over the past decade, they have issued five fine CDs of well played music by McEwen. This is the sixth, with more on promise. With some six or seven hours of music and perhaps some two dozen compositions we have an opportunity to survey the craft of a highly competent, skilful and inspired composer.

It is perhaps the string quartets that best allow us to see the achievement of McEwen. He wrote nineteen examples of this form. The first was composed in 1893 and the last in the year before his death.

The first problem to overcome is the numbering of these works - I give two possible solutions to this below:-

Quartet

Date

Grove

Cobbett

Chandos

Quartet in c minor

 

-

1

 

Quartet in f minor

 

-

2

 

Quartet in F

1893

1

3

 

Quartet in A min

1898-9

2

4

 

Quartet in E m

1901

3

5

 

Quartet in C min

1905

4

6

4

'Nugae' 7 Bagatelles

1912

5

[7]

 

Quartet in A Biscay

1913

6

[8]

 

Quartet in Eb 'Threnody'

1916

7

9

7

Quartet in Eb

1918

8

   

Quartet in B min

1920

9

14

 

The Jocund Dance

1920

10

11

 

Trivial tunes

1920

     

Quartet in e min

1921

11

   

Suite of Old National Dances

1923

12

10

 

Quartet in c min

1928

13

   

Quartet in d min

1936

14

   

Little Quartet 'In modo Scotico'

1936

15

   

Quartet 'Provençale'

1936

16

 

16

Quartet Fantasia

1947

17

 

17

From this list it is possible to see that the two early string quartets were numbered in the Cobbett survey, however, McEwen is know to have dismissed them as 'juvenile' when he compiled his list for Grove.

Chandos are wisely following the Grove list. However it is possible to find other designations in various catalogues and lists. There are even one or two quartets mentioned in the literature that cannot be fitted into the above scheme.

A brief overview of the composer's life and works is called for; relatively few people will be aware of his considerable achievement.

John Blackwood McEwen was born in the Border town of Hawick on April 13th 1868.

McEwen had an interest in singing - he was choirmaster at St James' Free Church in Glasgow and subsequently Lanark Parish Church.

He had a period of study with the great names of the day at the Royal Academy of Music; Ebenezer Prout, Tobias Matthay and Frederick Corder.

In 1893 he returned to Scotland and became choirmaster at South Parish Church in Greenock. He taught piano, harmony and composition at the Athenaeum School of Music in Glasgow.

In 1898 he joined the staff at the Royal Academy of Music as a professor of harmony and composition. He later became Principal of that organisation in 1924. He received a knighthood in 1931. McEwen died in 1948.

His best-known orchestral work is almost certainly his Solway Symphony that has been revived by Chandos. He wrote a fine series of tone poems, including Grey Galloway and Coronach. However it is perhaps his chamber music that best epitomises his musical style and achievement. Of this large catalogue, the nineteen string quartets are the bedrock.

The first quartet (chronologically) on this disc is No. 4 in c minor dating from 1905. This is quite an adventurous work for its era. It certainly defies any complaint that McEwen was somehow writing music that was parochially Scottish. One can agree with the writer of the programme notes that there are echoes of Bartók - at least in the first movement. There is intensity and depth, which sets this work above much British and European chamber music that, was being composed at his time. It is clear that McEwen was absorbing a variety of styles at home and abroad. The scherzo is aggressive. Although the harmonies are not outrageous there is a strong feel of dissonance to this moto perpetuo. The third movement, an andante espressivo begins with an impassioned theme with a Scottish feel to it. However this is not pastiche. The mood changes into a very chromatic and quite involved meditation on this theme. There is an air of sadness here; a lament if ever there was one. The last movement is 'a high spirited romp'. Yet as with much of McEwen's music there is a definite bitter-sweetness about it. There is no doubt that this is fine music. How it can have languished for so long is a complete mystery to me. It is a masterpiece of balance between the Scottish idiom and the western musical tradition.

The Quartet for Strings No.7 in Eb was written in 1916. Obviously this was in the middle of the First World War. It is hardly surprising that this work was subtitled 'Threnody'. This is a song of lamentation. This quartet is written in four movements - three of them being slow. The work opens with a very dark and lugubrious Lento. However there are some moments of warmth in this movement. With increasing complexity it builds up to a climax which resolves itself into a restatement of the opening theme. This is a very satisfying opening movement, showing the composer's genius to the full. The short second movement is full of string effects. The programme notes describe them as "late Elgarian arpeggios and motoric figures." All too soon we are in the Allegro Moto. There is no doubt that this is the heart of the work. Here we have a stunning display of string writing. Tunes seem to be passed to and fro across this movement. Suddenly a gorgeous phrase is taken up, used and then seemingly cast aside. There is no doubt that this is a masterpiece of string writing. Not until Britten and Tippett do we reach such an understanding of how a string quartet works. The last movement is a meditation - the old Scottish Lament - Flowers of the Forest. This song was composed to remember the fallen at the battle of Flodden in 1513, and is a highly appropriate choice for a work written during the 'War to End all Wars.' Somehow McEwen manages to avoid any sense of the parochial or of pathos or sheer sentimentality. It is a beautiful and perfect ending to a splendid composition.

The Quartet No.16 in G major 'Quartette Provençale’ was composed in 1936. Once again this is a fine example of the craft of string writing. It is supposed to be an 'evocation of the moods and colours of Provence’. McEwen is able to bring a variety of techniques to bear on these impressions. This includes the whole-tone scale so beloved of Debussy. Each of the movements have a descriptive title - Summer Morning - The Place of the Good King; Summer Evening - The Hill of the Angel; Le Mistral. The slow movement is particularly fascinating. There is an almost detached feel to this music. It is as if the composer is musing on the summer evening from afar. Perhaps it has some half-remembering a Scottish summer on the Clyde Estuary? It is played in a very quiet and subdued manner. There are some very interesting sonorities here. Perhaps it is the heart of the work. The last movement is a study on rhythmic variety. A fine finish to an excellent mood piece.

The last of McEwen's String Quartets is a Fantasia. It lasts a bare ten minutes. Yet the short duration should not encourage us to belittle this music. It is highly concentrated stuff. It occupies a sound-scheme very much of its own. It is not possible to say, Bartók; Shostakovich or Britten. Here is a work that exhibits considerable creative powers present in the mind of an eighty-year old man. This is not a composer resting on his laurels, nor harking back to some youthful or previously successful style. It is a powerful statement in its own right. We look in vain for the Scottish fingerprints - although perhaps it is in the 'air' rather than in the notes. This is a dark work - although the darkness is occasionally relieved by passages of some warmth. It is a fitting end to a fine academic and creative career. There were to be only a few relatively minor chamber pieces for cello and piano before the composer's death.

McEwen's music is not easy to come to terms with. Neither is it unapproachable. Critics regarded him in his day as being something of a modernist. Certainly, with hindsight it is easy to see that he was quite daring in his use of harmony and instrumental timbre. None of his music could be classified as extrovert; much of it is introspective. Yet it is all the better for this. McEwen is not a showman - he does not use effect for effect’s sake. Every note seems to count for him; he composes with an economical style. This is especially obvious in the chamber works.

We now have a fair number of easily available works by which to judge this composer. They include orchestral, chamber, piano and choral works. Each one of them shows a composer that is competent, inspired and at times verging on genius. He is a neglected figure who deserves to be rehabilitated in the Pantheon of not only British music but of Western music as a whole.

I look forward to the subsequent releases from Chandos in the near future.

John France


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