When I first became
interested in classical music there was a rule of thumb presented
to neophyte listeners. It was this: that one both loves Wagner
and loathes Brahms or vice versa. Now I am not going
to enter into that particular debate here, but what I do want
to consider is a certain lopsidedness that creeps into any
stylistic discussion of British music.
If a composer
has followed the lead of Wagner he is usually regarded as
being somehow progressive - especially if Tristan has
been one of the key influences. Somehow this is seen as being
a recommendation for the composer's music. However if Brahms
is perceived to be the stimulus then the opposite is the case.
We all recall Stanford's words to a young John Ireland – ‘All
Brahms and water, m'bhoy!’ And of course there have been plenty
of critics who have seen Stanford as beholden to the great
German. It has also been said of Parry, Mackenzie and many
other late nineteenth/early twentieth century composers.
of this present disc makes the statement that with the exception
of William Alwyn, "all of this music wears its Brahmsian
heart on its sleeve at times...". Now to be fair to him
he goes on to insist that ‘there is something profoundly English
about each one, which the Primrose players bring out to heart-warming
effect.’ However it seems to me that in the 21st
century the epithet ‘Brahmsian’ need no longer be regarded
as pejorative. In fact a brief study of any CD catalogue will
reveal the astounding fact that Brahms’ chamber music is actually
Yet all these
works are actually much more than Brahms. Each one of these
pieces – none of which can be regarded as the composer’s masterpiece
- are rooted firmly in the English musical tradition. To be
fair, this tradition is something that is rather difficult
to define. Is it, for example beholden to plainsong or Elizabethan
lute music? Or perhaps it is folk music? Yet none of these
influences appear to any great extent in these works. But
listen for a moment to the slow movement of the Howells Piano
Quartet. There is no doubt that this work conjures up moods
and impressions suggested by the Cotswold landscape rather
than the Bavarian forests or the shores of the Mediterranean.
This music is English to the core – yet it does look
back to Stanford and Brahms. This perhaps is the true genius
of these works – they were composed within the ‘prevailing
tradition’ of Western music yet they have a definite but numinous
English feel that can never be accused of being parochial
or bucolic. This is not cow-pat music.
This CD represents
an excellent conspectus of British Piano Quartets – at least
from the first half of the 20th Century. I imagine
that two of these works will be known to the majority of enthusiasts
of British chamber music – namely the Frank Bridge and the
Herbert Howells. William Alwyn’s Rhapsody for Piano Quartet
was available on Chandos CHAN 8440 but appears to have been
deleted. The Cyril Scott is presented on a fine Dutton recording:
CDLX 7116. The Bridge is well represented on Helios CDH55063
and Naxos 8.557283.
I do not intend
to provide a detailed analysis or history of any of these
pieces – each one of them deserves study and repeated hearings;
further, I am minded to write at length about the Howells
in the near future. Suffice to say that Howells’ is by far
the ‘greatest’ work on this CD. We recall that it was composed
in the middle of the Great War in 1916 at a time when the
composer had been told that he had little time to live: he
had been diagnosed with a heart condition. It could be argued,
however that the wonderful middle movement is valedictory.
It is one of the loveliest things in British music and is
one that I would want on my desert island.
notes by Francis Pott are amongst the most ‘comprehensive’
that I have encountered in any CD. To be fair much of these
notes deal with the composers and chamber music in general
as opposed to the specifics of these works. However there
is a tremendous amount of information - both factual and subjective.
The works are set within the context of British and European
Yet there is one
curious glitch that really had me wondering about the consistency
of this massive essay. Pott states that the Alwyn was composed
in 1950. Now I always believed that this was a pre-war work
written around 1938 – so I was somewhat surprised by this
I checked the
entry in Grove – 1939. I referred to S. Craggs’ and A. Poulton’s:
William Alwyn: a Catalogue of his Music. I looked on
the composer website. However the clincher was William Alwyn
himself writing in the programme notes for the Chandos disc
that the date of composition was 1938. So there are only
two possibilities – firstly that Francis Pott got the date
wrong or there is another revision of the work produced in
1950 – which all the evidence suggests is not the case.
the dates for the immensely enjoyable Cyril Scott Quartet
seem to be a bit awry as well. The sequence of events for
this work were: composed 1899; premiered in April 1902 at
a Classical Chamber Concert in Liverpool; performed by Fritz
Kreisler, Emil Kreuz, Ludwig Lebell and Scott on 12 February
1903 at a Broadwood Concert at St. James Hall, London. Yet
none of this is mentioned in this ‘considerable’ essay. A
date of 1900 is given. Full stop.
The sound quality
of the disc is second to none and the playing is all one could
imagine from a group that has named itself after William Primrose
(1904-1982) who was one of the finest violists of the 20th
century. The Primrose Quartet was founded in 2004 by four
well known chamber musicians. Amongst other things they have
and are championing ‘under-represented’- British composers.
Let us hope that
there will be many more British chamber works from Meridian
– if they want any ideas – I have quite a few suggestions
up my sleeve!