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John Blackwood McEWEN (1868-1948)
String Quartets Volume 3
String Quartet No. 8 in E flat major (1918)
String Quartet No. 2 in A minor (1898)
A Little Quartet 'in modo scotico', No. 15 (1936)
Chilingirian Quartet
Recorded Snape Maltings Concert Hall, Suffolk, 3-5 May 2002
CHANDOS CHAN 10182 [60.27]

Chandos’s McEwen Quartet series continues apace. Volume Three delves back to the early 1898 Quartet and as far forward as the 1936 Fifteenth. The mid-period Eighth completes the trio of fascinating retrievals. As ever our guides are the Chilingirian Quartet. Their command of texture and transparency is just right for these works – allied to which their crisp rhythmic sense serves equally well in the more propulsive and aerial moments.

The Second dates from 1898 when McEwen was thirty and a newly appointed professor at the Royal Academy of Music. It’s an essentially conventional work in four movements but the cloistered harmonies and little first movement march herald promise of things to come. The second movement first violin lament is treated with great care by McEwen and is beautifully and richly harmonised. Whereas we are introduced to a slightly more forthright McEwen in the finale, which is full of dance and drive, and in its control of metrics shows something of Dvořák’s influence – speeding up joyously for a folk-laced finale. The Eighth dates from 1918 but apparently received its first performance only in 1927 when it was given by the Virtuoso Quartet – good friends of British chamber music and led by one of the country’s most admirable players, Marjorie Hayward. Cast in three movements this is an adventurous and likeable work with a songful but never over-bright first movement and a gravely sweet Larghetto, tied by a strong cello anchor. The finale is a delicious Allegretto, pizzicato-laced and impelling itself towards a rather stern, retrospectively meaningful conclusion. It’s a work that gathers momentum and meaning as it goes and leaves one reflecting on its sub-textual significance (if any, of course).

This leaves the Little Quartet – so-called - No.15 of 1936. Once again this is written in three movements. In the first McEwen achieves a rare transparency of texture in which the folk-like tunes are interwoven – I was going to write ‘embedded’ but that doesn’t begin to convey the apposite technical skill with which McEwen does it. His delicacy is laced with Debussian and Ravelian harmonic complexity in the slow movement. The finale, in "reel time," is launched with some feisty droning – some of the writing is explicitly "Scottish". McEwen’s rhythmic mobility and dexterity are always exciting and he also conjures up fluting, flighting sonorities that summon up a convulsive animation from all four players. This is delightful and clever writing and we’ve waited a long time to hear it on disc.

McEwen’s quartet admirers will snap this up – and we await the next instalment with greedy enthusiasm.

Jonathan Woolf

see also review by Rob Barnett


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