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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    




Kenneth LEIGHTON (1929 – 1988)

String Quartet No.1 Op.32 (1956)
String Quartet No.2 Op.33 (1957)
Seven Variations for String Quartet Op.43 (1964)
Edinburgh Quartet (Susanne Stanzeleit, Philip Burrin, violin; Michael Beeston, viola; Mark Bailey, cello)
Recorded: no details, published 2002
MERIDIAN CDE 84460 [67:43]


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Kenneth Leighton’s string quartets were composed almost simultaneously in 1956 and 1957. They obviously share many characteristics, but the most remarkable thing about them is that the composer succeeded in writing two highly contrasted works. It goes without saying that they both share Leighton’s contrapuntal mastery and ability to develop long paragraphs from limited material, which the composer varies and expands with remarkable assurance and sureness of touch. They also share Leighton’s personal emotional world with their mix of sorrowful meditation and powerful energy, of contrapuntal complexity and often deceptive simplicity, of exacerbated chromaticism and almost easy-going diatonicism.

The String Quartet No.1 Op.32, a BBC commission, was written for the Aeolian Quartet to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Third Programme (as it was then known). When fulfilling this commission, the composer planned a second quartet that was, as it were, written "alongside" the first quartet. Of the two, the First String Quartet is the most traditional, i.e. as far as its structure is concerned; for with Leighton, things are never quite that simple. The first movement opens with a statement of the main material by the viola. This is varied and expanded with a remarkable mastery and imagination. The music gains momentum and reaches some carefully placed climaxes before ending in quiet beauty. The central movement is an extended aria in two parts, each ending with a climax. A brief reference to the opening concludes the movement. This is followed by a nervous Finale restating some material from the preceding movements. The music moves along with much energy, pauses in some calmer sections and finally reaches its robust, assertive conclusion.

The String Quartet No.2 Op.33 was completed in 1957 and first performed by the New Edinburgh Quartet in October of that year. As already mentioned, it is a somewhat more complex work than its predecessor. It is in four movements of which the outer ones are the most developed. The first movement moves from its Molto Adagio opening to its Presto conclusion. It opens with a long slow introduction presenting a theme that, in one way or another, dominates the entire movement. The music unfolds to reach some intense climaxes before ending with a quiet coda recalling the textures of the opening. There follows a Marcia Lenta with an animated central section. The third movement is an energetic Scherzo with some fugal sections. The Second String Quartet ends with a long Epilogo which is one of Leighton’s finest and most moving pieces of music. It is based on two contrasted ideas :a heartfelt, tragic and highly chromatic theme; and a simpler, diatonic Dolce e semplice. However, the conflict between these contrasting themes is left unresolved, and the quartet ends, as it had begun, in ambiguity.

The Seven Variations Op.43, commissioned for the Arriaga Quartet by Maurice de Sausmarez in memory of his mother, is a suite of seven mainly short, contrasting movements, in turn elegiac, sorrowful and ironic, but the last variation Adagio e sostenuto is the longest and the most emotionally charges of the set, carrying "the main emotional weight of the work" (the composer’s words). However, at the end, "all questions remain unanswered". The Seven Variations Op.43, however, is no slight or lightweight piece though it may be more readily accessible than the more substantial and complex string quartets. Indeed, any composer less modest than Leighton, would have called it a string quartet. While listening to this fine work and to the two string quartets, one cannot but regret that Leighton did not write more for string quartet, for this exacting but immensely rewarding medium was remarkably suited to Leighton’s often introspective music. These works, however, belong to the finest British string quartets of the second half of the 20th Century, and are among his finest achievements.

I have long known and loved these works from older tapes of broadcast performances, and I have been waiting for this recording for many long years. Now, here they are, in excellent performances and fine recorded sound (a bit on the dry side at times), and with illuminating notes by Edward Harper from which I have unashamedly quoted. A most welcome addition to Leighton’s expanding discography, this wonderful release is unreservedly recommended.

Hubert Culot

 


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