Not for the first
time, I find myself starting to write
about Elizabeth Maconchy by lamenting
the shamefully poor state of her discography.
With the exception of a handful of chamber
and vocal works I am not aware that
any of her orchestral or larger-scale
pieces are in the current catalogue.
Unfortunately recordings have never
been plentiful but I still live in hope
that someone will see fit to re-release
the recordings of her Symphony for
Double String Orchestra and Serenata
Concertante for violin and strings
(the excellent soloist was Manoug Parikian).
These were available on prime Lyrita
vinyl some years ago. The same can be
said for another Lyrita effort (yet
another plea for the unlocking of their
archive!) and a record I remember with
affection that included Maconchy’s Op.
1, the overture Proud Thames.
All the more reason
then for applauding Forum (better known
as Regis) for restoring this fine cycle
of String Quartets to the catalogue.
These recordings were originally deleted
some years ago as a result of the sad
demise of Unicorn-Kanchana. Even better,
the quartets are available here at bargain
price and complete for the first time
rather than the three individual volumes
that existed previously. Better value
for money you will simply never find.
The point that strikes
me time and time again when listening
to the early Maconchy quartets is the
astonishing way in which she found her
own voice so early and achieved a notable
degree of stylistic consistency as a
result. Even in the First Quartet, completed
in 1933 when she was twenty-six the
sound world is quintessential Maconchy.
It is worth noting that by this time
her orchestral suite "The Land"
had already been performed at the Proms
under Henry Wood to considerable acclaim.
In the first movement listen to the
soaring violin melody over the shifting
harmonies in the lower strings at around
1:00 for a fine example. These days
this would not be considered such a
feat. We expect, unfairly I would say,
our composers to be fully formed in
their compositional personalities very
early in their careers. But it should
not be forgotten that although Maconchy
took up piano lessons and started composing
early in life she was essentially a
country girl with no musical background
in her family. Indeed she did not hear
a symphony orchestra or string quartet
"in the flesh" until she was
around seventeen, by which time she
was already a student at the Royal College
Of Music, her mother having brought
her over to study from Dublin where
they had been living at the time.
The composer maintained
that the only area in which the Quartet
No. 1 was not fully representative
of her mature style was in its more
restricted use of counterpoint. Not
that it is devoid of counterpoint of
course – far from it. However it is
true that the "counterpoint of
rhythms and harmony" that is such
an integral part of the Maconchy quartet
cycle, indeed of her entire output,
became more defined over forthcoming
Not surprisingly the
quartets are the absolute backbone of
the composer’s output. Maconchy said
that it was in the quartets that she
had "worked out" her musical
path. A glance through the chronology
of the works shows that the greatest
gap, between the seventh and eighth
quartets, is twelve years. In short
she produced a string quartet every
four years over a fifty-two year period
from the commencement of the cycle.
Over a time-span as
long as fifty-two years it is inevitable
that the music should change and develop
and indeed it does. Maconchy’s technique
acquires, albeit almost imperceptibly,
greater sophistication and the language
gradually becomes tougher, the harmony
more astringent and dissonant whilst
never abandoning its basic reliance
on melodic and harmonic motif. Yet there
are also many constants that stand like
fingerprints of the composer’s hand.
The "impassioned argument"
is ever present, the dialogue and conversations
between the instruments that were so
important to the composer are always
in evidence. Throughout the cycle there
are little snatches of melody, harmonic
patterns, intervallic motifs and telling
rhythmic devices that catch the attention
and draw the mind back to other examples
in the cycle. It makes for compelling
listening. Structurally also one soon
begins to become familiar with how Maconchy
liked to write. So much of the music
stems from one, perhaps almost innocuous,
cell or motif that can often comprise
only a handful of notes but becomes
meaningful as the composer grows the
material for the entire work from that
one pivotal figure. She was a master
of structural concision in this way
and all of the quartets are admirably
organised yet constantly fascinating
as a result. The presiding influence
on Maconchy throughout her life was
Bartók and it is in the rhythms
of her music that I feel him to be closest.
Yet although the ghost is undeniably
almost always there, it is never overbearing.
Indeed, it is Maconchy’s own integrity
as a human being and utterly tireless
personality that shine through the music
and ultimately mark this cycle out as
one of the finest.
We are blessed with
several fine cycles of twentieth century
British quartets and I would draw attention
to those of Robert Simpson and Daniel
Jones as being particularly gratifying.
However, the journey through the quartets
of Elizabeth Maconchy will always prove
to be one of the most rewarding that
the open-minded listener can take.
In conclusion, it is
perhaps wrong to highlight individual
ensembles in the context of an admirable
project such as this. That said, I will
comment only because it is almost impossible
to listen to this set without forming
certain judgements about the inevitable
contrasts between the three quartets
involved. In point of fact all acquit
themselves with credit, but I found
myself particularly drawn to the playing
of the Bingham Quartet. During the last
years of her life they enjoyed a close
working relationship with the composer
and it shows in the sheer commitment,
fire and rhythmic attack in their playing.
It is quite clear that the Binghams
relish this music and their strong performances
of the Fifth and Sixth Quartets in particular
will give much enjoyment.
A fine reissue then
and one that no collector with an interest
in British music or the string quartet
medium in general should be without.
If you missed out on the three separate
volumes when they were originally issued
then do not hesitate to take advantage
of this first rate bargain.
see also Elizabeth
Maconchy by David Wright