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Sir Arnold BAX (1883-1953)
String Quartet No. 3 in F major (1936)
Lyrical Interlude for string quartet (published in 1923)
Adagio ma non troppo ‘Cathleen-ni-Hoolihan’ (from String Quartet in E major of 1903)
Maggini Quartet
Recorded at Potton Hall, Suffolk, England, 12th-14th June 2001
NAXOS 8.555953 [56:59]


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The main work in this programme of Bax chamber music is the String Quartet No. 3 in F major composed for the Griller Quartet in 1936. It was started and finished in London while the scherzo and trio were written at Cashla Bay, County Galway, Ireland. Bax maintained that the first movement "was probably influenced by the coming of spring in beautiful Kenmare". The music of this movement certainly has a virile thrusting quality and a restlessness. This is more akin to the more realistic evocation of nature ‘red in tooth and claw’ of Bridge’s Enter Spring (composed in 1927) than to a dreamy idealistic portrait. There are passages that have a raw intensity that suggest lashing rain and screaming gales. Bax’s string writing here is as technically impressive as it is imaginative. The second movement begins mystically, almost hymn-like, before questing material interposes suggesting a hostile landscape and conflict. Grotesque quivering dance rhythms against sharp staccato stabs are heard. What tender music there is turns plaintive, even hysterical and panicking. Had Bax’s ghosts from the 1920s returned to haunt him? Strange unsettling music, this. In Bax’s words: "The third movement consists of two strongly opposed elements – a rather sinister and malicious scherzo, and a dreamy, remotely romantic trio. This contest is finally won by the scherzo, when it converts the subject of the trio to its own way of thinking." In the trio of this movement Bax makes a fleeting but unmistakable reference to Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No. 4, possibly because of the Coronation mood in London that year before the abdication of Edward VII was announced. Bax goes on to say, "The texture of the finale is rougher and more robust than that of the rest of the work, though there is a softening of mood towards the abrupt and impetuous closing bars’. The music is march-like with a cocky swagger; the mood sardonic and abrasive.

The Lyrical Interlude for string quintet is a re-scoring, with two violas instead of cellos, of the slow movement of a String Quintet written before the First World War and at one time presumed lost. It has a lovely, typical Baxian long-breathed melody and there is a magical episode that might suggest an enchanted forest glade.

The Adagio ma non troppo ‘Cathleen-ni-Hoolihan’ from the String quartet in E major is another attractive little gem and very Irish in its rhythms and sentiment. Bax writes a verse (slightly misquoted) from W.B. Yeats’s early poem ‘To Ireland in the Coming Times’ at the head of the slow movement of the Quartet:

Know that I would accounted be

True brother of that company

That sang to sweeten Ireland’s wrong

Ballad and story, rann and song.

Bax’s virile String Quartet is an uneasy work played with a nice nervous edge by the Maggini Quartet. The early works have a charm that is immediate. Recommended to Bax enthusiasts.

Ian Lace

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