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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


Alistair HINTON (b.1950)
String Quintet (1969- 1977)
Sarah Leonard (soprano)
Jagdish Mistry (violin)
Marcus Barcham-Stevens (violin)
Levine Andrade (viola)
Michael Stirling ('cello)
Corrado Canonici (double bass)
rec 1999, UK
ALTARUS AIR-CD-9066(3) [3CDs: 41.23+62.45+65.14]


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Reading the composer's own account of his unconventional musical pilgrimage in the notes accompanying this recording, one might be forgiven for thinking it at least self- indulgence - at worst shameless egotism. A composer who, unfashionably, writes music on a scale1 comparable with that of Busoni, Sorabji and Stevenson, and of a Mahlerian intensity, must resolutely be able to defend himself against such a charge - and that through his music. The record sleeve, written with his heart very much on display on his other sleeve, tells us of his rites of passage - citing Roussel, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Webern, Varèse, Berg, Mahler, Medtner, Szymanowski, van Dieren and Busoni - a catalogue of possible influences, a recital of which would today excite caution, if not ill- founded antagonism. Regrettably Hinton's own music is too little known. But whatever the convoluted rites of passage which he describes with a detectable degree of emotion, there is little doubt in my mind2 that, as a composer, Alistair Hinton has reached a platform from which he is well equipped to champion his work in creative composition. This he does, with some conviction, in this present work, the eight year genesis of which he outlines in the notes in some detail. Suffice it to say that I have played all three discs (just over 169 minutes duration!) a dozen times in total, discovering music of a rare and compelling loveliness, rich in imagery, logical in structure - and with growing admiration.

It is something of a paradox that a work so evidently indebted to early Schoenberg (even to the illustration on the sleeve3 ) and, to a much lesser extent, if at all, to Sorabji and Stevenson (despite Hinton's role as archivist to the former) should emerge ultimately as a highly original piece of writing.

No music today, written as this is in a tonal idiom (albeit colourfully chromatic) can escape the charge of 'quoting' - even of plagiarism - when he is merely dipping into the common pot of 20th century European musical experience4 .The impact of Verklärte Nacht cannot be ignored, but its dark romanticism is here absorbed into Hinton's own musical language. To compose a work of such proportions, in a tonal framework, and with a bias towards C major5 and having its genesis in a musical atmosphere, the fashionable culture of the Boulez/Darmstadt/Donaueschingen persuasion, with minimalism still then in the future, is surely original enough. But the proof of the pudding …… !

The Quintet is in five movements, with a dramatic soprano part in the final movement, drawing for texts on a variety of sources, not all of them identified.

The first movement is in clear Sonata form, and opens with a three-note 'motto' - C, F sharp, E flat - on Double Bass and. Viola (Ex1) that holds within it, as in a nucleus, the seeds of an essentially lyrical development. This IS a far cry from Tchaikowsky’s or Beethoven's Fate' motif, being of an introspective cast. Together with a rising scale passage (Ex.2 ) , its retrograde corollary and a brief melodic pattern (Exx 3a and b), these elements are woven into a Chagall-like tapestry of evocative colour. Propelled by an expectant dominant 7th build-up. a strong sense of key persists and, after a climax, the lyrical second subject crystallises (Exx 4 and 4a) whose eloquence is to feature powerfully in the peroration of the work. If one must cite influences then surely Siegfried Idyll is not far away? After straying through various keys and finishing with an echo of the 'motto' figure the material is developed over a rocking accompaniment. The scale passages of Ex 2 are interwoven in the development section and the movement continues with a reflective epilogic musing resulting in the return of the opening 'motto', but finally with G natural (replacing the F sharp) in C minor, its concerns at least temporarily resolved. Such a brief description of what is a richly inventive and elaborate piece of writing gives little enough idea of this cogently constructed movement, from which the subsequent material of the Quintet is formulated.6

The following three movements comprise two Scherzi and an intervening Theme and Variations. The second brief movement is marked Allegro scherzando and begins with a rhythmic Beethoven-ish pulse. - I.Į | I .Į | I.Į | ‎‎‎‎‎‎‎‎ ‎‎ ‎‎ ‎‎ - impish rather than devilish, whose melodic aspect becomes clearer as the music progresses. It dissolves into a mysterious fog of pizzicato and col legno sounds from which an important figure materialises (Ex.5). This is challenged by the motto theme from the opening of the first movement (slightly varied) The opening rhythmic figure is coloured by the mellow tones of the viola in the appearance of the important second subject (Ex 6) which reappears, in the same C minor tonality but rhythmically altered, in the second Scherzo. After this is developed, entwined with elements of the first movement, the rhythmic opening figure triumphs in a rather pompous-sounding march rhythm, subduing Ex 6, which is heard as a ghostly echo.

The third movement is in the form of a Theme and Variations. The theme is a slow-moving7 Mahlerian hymn (Ex 7) which despite straying widely in the first of the Variations ends conclusively in D flat. The second variation also strays widely but again ends in D flat. The third takes the form of a contrapuntal dialogue between violin and the heavy-footed Bass - an instrumental colour that is used to effect in the final movement. A more ethereal treatment, like moths' wings, follows ending again solidly on the note D flat which, with a G natural and E natural is a brief gesture of Ex 1, as if calling a momentary halt. The fifth variation is lyrical, yet stretches tonality to the limit en route and the movement culminates in a warmly harmonised version of the theme - a kind of protracted epilogue (which, in the same key of D flat, clothes the ultimate invocation to 'Divine Music' (see Ex 16) in the final movement of the Quintet.) effectively fulfilling the role of Variation 6, detached as it is from the other five by half a lifetime …

The second Scherzo which forms the fourth movement is marked Allegro con Brio; its wraith-like sounds filled with a repeated 'pleading' motif (Ex 8) not unrelated to previous figures such as Ex 5, and from this Ex 9's second subject ( a variant of Ex 6 from the first Scherzo) appears in C minor.

This material, developed, ends with an eloquent Coda passage that, before being rudely broken off seems to acknowledge a passing debt to Schubert in its delicacy.

Thus far the conception of the Quintet is clearly enunciated, of a recognisably logical construction. It is more than that - it is a powerful and moving exposition of emotive ideas, and while in one way self-contained formally at this point, with virtually all the material exposed, it is in another way full of anticipation. In the fifth and final movement, occupying almost thrice the time taken by the four preceding movements, we are entering darker-hued territory. The atmosphere is fraught - the strings intone an octave C, tremolando and as all save the viola fall away, the remaining solo voice underpins the persistent violin harmonics (recalling the third variation.) This is followed by a drooping D- D flat, B- B flat in the double bass which underlines the feeling of foreboding. Out of the darkness Ex 2, turning in on itself, prepares sombrely for the return of Ex 1 which, with the lyrical E xx 6 and 9, is mulled over. The nightmarish sonority of bass and ghostly harmonics continues, and, as if in anticipation of what is to come, these violin harmonics seem to acquire the timbre of a distant human voice. With more impassioned and enigmatic intensity the earlier material of the Quintet (Exx 6, 9 and 4,) strays further and further from a tonal centre. Ex 1 is again suggested only to be borne away in another scherzo-like passage recalling the second movement of the work. Despite attempts to reawaken the more lyrical aspects the mood remains one of uncertainty. Resolution is imperative and, dramatically over dark harmonically clouded tremolando chords, the soprano, entering for the first time intones (Ex10) the words of an unidentified Brahmin Rishi poet8 - ‘I have seen the vision’. From this point contact with tonality seems lost in the strange unworldly atmosphere 'ich fuhle luft / von anderen Planeten’ and underlying the restless music, the philosophy of 'Self' becomes an elitist stance against the cult of the commonplace. Taking a second text from Schoenberg, 'the chosen one' is urged to believe in the Spirit, and to ,create 'beyond [his] courage' to accomplish, further pursuing the elitist standpoint. Over the next few bars much is made of the extreme sonorities of voice, double bass and violin harmonics, with a foretaste of the ultimate consummation - a shadowy version of Ex 4a ( and later Ex 17) appearing in the darkness. With a climax on the words 'Kleine nicht verehern' the voice blends into a high cello C (a reversal of the effect heard previously in the movement) and, like a benediction, come the words 'you must believe in the Spirit'.

Along double-bass cadenza with the rising and falling scale patterns elaborated in counterpoint with the other instruments leads to the next setting. This, a little known sonnet of Keats written 'in disgust at vulgar superstition' is clothed with the colour of tolling bells - 'a melancholy sound' - achieved by a curious but evocative use of upper harmonics. Pursuing the elitist standpoint, there is irony in repeated pointing of the word 'glory' with a falling series of 6/3 minor chords descending by whole tone steps (Ex 11). Another recitative 'My Soul preached to me ... taught me to love that which the people abhor', further separates the artist from popular acclaim. This is expressed in a diatribe (to words of Delius, himself intolerant of the mediocre) in which 'Music is a cry of the Soul' .In this lengthy section - an extended aria scored for voice and Bass only - those who do 'anything and call it art' are castigated, followed by the epitome of elitism in words by Norman Douglas 'Consider well your neighbour / What an imbecile he is'

Delius's ironic sentiments 'Great men must be denied in order that the little ones become conspicuous' brings back the falling 6/3 minor tone motif (Ex11) .It is not surprising to find herein the words of Sorabji, one of the strongest influences in the thinking (though not recognisable in the music) of Hinton, summing up the position of the creative artist as the elitist par excellence - the adventurer into Nirvana, seeking the ultimate refuge therein as the only El Dorado in a world of mediocracy.

Significantly the words 'music is a way to enlightenment of the spirit' are intoned, unaccompanied, with the spoken voice uttering Sorabji's final sentence from his book' Around Music'.9

This marks a very definite turning point as the music resumes, quietly, dream-like and gradually thickening in texture with the following words of Milton II And as I wake" ( Ex 12) following Ex 6 and returning to more earth-bound harmony. Now is addressed the' ALL' of creation, the music leading inexorably towards a climax at 'For Thou art all' - a spectacular high C , fraught with expectancy on the final syllable (Ex 13), the soprano voice blending into the cello which then traces exactly the same line that followed the word 'verehren' (where the cello had entered on the same high C. ) But resolution thus glimpsed from afar ( in a brief reference to Ex 4) - as Bax did in his seven Symphonies - is not yet to be. The mists of those evanescent regions instead of dispersing turn to clouds. This shadowy Adagio statement of Ex 4 precedes a passage that might pre-echo the image of 'ceaseless patterns of being' - a line which occurs in the later poem of Tagore (which follows after some 350 bars.) The texture is invaded and disrupted by rhythmic references to Exx 5 and 8, culminating in the disruptive rhythm from the opening bars of the first Scherzo.

During this, and the following pages where we encounter a triple fugue, the voice is noticeably silent while the composer comes to terms with his philosophy.10 A climax of harsh chords introduces the first fugal theme (Ex 14) acknowledging its indebtedness to previous material. With the disintegration of this trenchant rhythm, the slow deliberate processional of the second fugue appears (Ex 15) above which the violin sings softly of the poet's "ageless light". This long contrapuntal chorale-like episode becomes progressively more dark in colour. As these chords begin to unravel this polyphony ends suddenly in a tremolo sfz chord, and the third fugal subject appears (derived from Ex 3b), underpinned by the grotesque rhythm of Ex 14 in a kind of 'Dance to the Music of Time'. Out of this furioso confusion the voice reappears with the words of Tagore 'The eternal Dream is borne on the wings of ageless light', and Self is now projected into the vision of Life and Love, that which is essentially expressed only in music, now the sole object of veneration. Emerging quietly from the tumult on a radiant D flat Adagio" again on an expectant pedal 6/4 chord, ‘Divine Music’ (Ex 16) is a lyrical hymn to Music, that "inspirer of poets, composers and architects" , paying its debt to Schoenberg in a long mellifluous passage, ascending into the aether towards a seeming resolution on D flat. This promise is however rudely interrupted by a brusque pattern of descending scale figures, very reminiscent of Verklärte Nacht - and this agitation gathers emotional momentum to what is the ultimate expression of the foregoing - "Love can give no idea of Music/Music can give an idea of Love" (Ex 17) - a peak of heart-wrenching loveliness. They are "The two wings of the Soul" (Ex 18) - and on these words the voice on atop B against a 6/4 C major chord, reaches the emotional climax of the whole work.

Significantly there is nothing Wagnerian about this consummation - a restrained, even awesome, triumph of the spirit. Exhausted, there now begins a poignant and richly harmonised Epilogue in which all the previous material is involved - a vast quasi-liebestod, in which the voice addresses "O Thou Love of unsurpassable sweetness", exhorting the music to illuminate the creative spirit. All the earlier material seems to come together to round off the composer's plea, and with an ethereal procession of chords seems to approach a cadence. But with a thrilling modulation to a further top C "Now all is finished. the ultimate apex is reached (Ex 19) - the last bars resembling the climber who, as he scales each peak, finds another mountain in view. The preceding series of chords now lead to what is probably the 'raison d'etre' of the Quintet - "Others may be dumb in their sufferings/But God gave me a gift to tell of mine.":-

These final pages ~ reaching union. with the 'omnipresent Spirit Love and Music, which is Beauty Supreme, move with all the solemnity of a vast chorale (combining Exx 3b,4 and 6, all melded in a glorious and peaceful whole) , and the calm of ultimate resolution towards the Quintet's final resting place in an unequivocal C major, the invocation 'Beauty' echoed by a disembodied voice as the curtain falls over the final seven bars. I am reminded of Bax - "Within us the desire becomes an agony to live for a single hour with all the might of the imagination: to drown our beings in the proud sunlit tumult of one instant of utter realisation even though it consume us utterly …"11

What are we to make of this music - not only a gloriously uninhibited declaration of a young composer's musical philosophy, an exposé of an inner soul in terms that are rapidly belonging to a past age - but now a listener's journey through an emotional landscape of varying territory - an experience from which one cannot come away unmoved. It is a major assault on the fashionable foibles of a musical public in danger of being seduced from Beauty by the empty posturings and caricatures of those who seek, vainly and mistakenly, for the momentary thrill and acclaim that passes for 'originality' but in reality is only novelty. Do not be fooled - this is the genuine article - and, in my estimation, one of the potentially great works of the 21st Century.

In his notes Alistair Hinton speaks of the commitment of the soloists. This is felt in these discs, clear and involved. So involved in fact and so much part of the creation of this astonishing work that I accepted the commitment in the playing without requiring to mention it - the composer's will rightly adjudged and interpreted. There is nothing more to be said except what is in the music itself .

Colin Scott-Sutherland

see also review and article by Rob Barnett


(1) Pansophiae for John Ogdon (organ) 44': 2nd Piano Sonata 70': Sequentia Clavicensis 72':
(2) As I had already reviewed Hinton's 'Variations on a theme of Grieg’, and to avoid any danger of diluting my own impressions, I played all 3 discs some 8 or 9 times before reading his Notes.
(3) footnote deleted
(4) I use the term 'European' deliberately - the esoteric influence of Sorabji felt in the philosophy yet not in the music.
(5) "the prevailing tonal centres of the work are actually C minor (1st movt), G sharp minor (2nd , movt, altho' its second subject returns to C minor), D flat major (3rd movt) E flat minor (4th movt) and C minor ( 5th movt up to the entry of the soprano ). The ultimate tonal goal is of course C major but other than a brief shard of this tonality just before the recapitulatory passage in the 2nd movt it is not reached, indeed it is almost wilfully avoided 'at no matter what cost' until it bursts upon the scene (see Ex 18 above: ed) 'to herald the words "They are the two wings of the Soul" - thereafter , and only thereafter, does the music retain a bias towards the C major of its conclusion (letter from the composer).
(6) Sorabji would have exclaimed infantillistic babble about 'form', 'subjects', 'development' and all .the rest of classroom claptrap tells us less than nothing about the music' ('Mi Contra Fa' Porcupine Press page 15)
(7) .it was the general 'feel' of the second movement of Beethoven's opus 127 String Quartet and its layout as a very long, slow theme wi!h but few variations that was a kind of inspiration for the Quintet's third movement (letter from the composer).
(8) The texts of this final movement, from a variety of unlikely sources, are not all identified. The composer explains that, having virtually abandoned the composition at some point in its gestation, notes were subsequently lost when moving house.
(9) The final chapter of 'Around Music' (Unicorn Press 1932) entitled 'The Good, the Beautiful, the True' whose catalogue of 'masters' reflects pretty well those already mentioned above, and in which the argument of 'What is Beauty' is proved impossible to resolve universally. Let us take refuge in Nirvana and leave it at that’.
(10) His philosophy is perhaps in some way involved in the necessity for the formal strength exemplified in the Fugue as form - a Bach-like formal perfection where perhaps Life and Love are in some way Subject, and Counter Subject?
(11) 'The Lifting of the Veil' from 'Children of the Hills' Arnold Bax. Maunsel. Dublin. p91.

see also review and article by Rob Barnett

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