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Alan RAWSTHORNE (1905-1971)
Theme and Variations for Two Violins (1937) [15:29]
String Quartet No. 1 (1939) [10:01]
String Quartet No. 2 (1954) [17:37]
String Quartet No. 3 (1965) [17:02]
Maggini Quartet (Laurence Jackson (violin I); David Angel (violin II); Martin Outram (viola); Michal Kznawski (cello))
rec. Potton Hall, Suffolk, 13-15 December 2005. DDD
NAXOS 8.570136 [60:09]

Naxos – the little label that could – continues its successful series of the music of British composer Alan Rawsthorne. Here was a composer who unflinchingly dove headlong into serialism and atonality at a time when most composers of his generation were still noodling with Romanticism, composers such as Vaughan Williams, Delius and Bax.  Not to besmirch these composers and their extraordinary contributions to 20th century music, Alan Rawsthorne’s lodestar has always been more Germanic and European than anything particularly British.  He is a clear student of Schoenberg, Berg, and Bartok, particularly of the string quartets. Rawsthorne’s music is a series of carefully stated variations devoid of tonality worked through with logic rather than the usual braided harmonies and melodic structures – all the normal traits found in Romanticism.
The music gathered here isn’t strictly serial, though it has an internal logic of its own and seems to go out of its way to avoid anything resembling a memorable tune; think of the tunes in the quartets of Shostakovich and you’ll know what I mean.  Still, this music is hypnotic and deserves attention.  For example, his Theme and Variations for Two Violins, Rawsthorne’s first published work, is a two-part invention, Bach-like in its austerity, but filled with all kinds of energy with an occasional waltz rhythm that will remind the listener of the same kind of dances that Shostakovich used.  The variations offer each violinist a chance to carry the main argument, even to trade back and forth playfully.  It’s a very dynamic work, always cogent, never acerbic – though it is resolutely atonal with rather imaginative use of double-stopping and 6/8 triplets thrown in here and there.  The work never overstays its welcome and it never loses interest.
His String Quartet No. 1 is another theme-and-variation, but this time is much fuller in sonic texture.  What’s here is actually a reconstruction done by the composer.  The String Quartet No. 1 had its first performance in 1939 in Vienna, but part of the manuscript was lost when the war started.  Rawsthorne reworked the manuscript from memory, and while the rest of the work resurfaced later on, the composer kept to the reconstructed version.  Again, this is very carefully crafted, neatly articulated music; the composer is clearly in control of every melodic line in each of the work’s six variations.
His String Quartet No. 2 begins with a first movement that’s in sonata form, but is quickly abandoned for a more rhapsodic unfolding of countervailing arguments, with the cello having much less to say.  Still doggedly atonal, the work’s thematic elements remain clear.  Finally, the String Quartet No. 3 most definitely will remind the listener of the latter quartets of Shostakovich and of Bartok’s last two, though bereft of their romantic signatures.  Though it’s crisp and assertive – and equally intelligent – it still might put off some listeners.
I’ve referenced both Shostakovich and Bartok in this review for several reasons, not least of which is because they have the greatest string quartets of the 20th century and are probably the standard-bearers in that genre.  These chamber works – though only four in number – are just as intelligent as the works of the aforementioned composers and we owe Naxos thanks for bringing them out into the sunlight.  They might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but they were for me.  The Maggini Quartet clearly has an affinity for this music and the recording ambience – so important to chamber music – is quite focused, allowing for both spaciousness and warmth.  Rawsthorne fans will definitely want this disc and those of you interested in 20th century modernism in music – as opposed to romanticism – might want to try this as well.
Paul Cook

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