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Primrose Piano Quartet
Frank
Bridge (1879-1941)
Phantasy Piano Quartet in F# minor (1911) [12:08]
Herbert Howells (1892-1983)
Piano Quartet in A minor, Op.21 (1916-1917) [26:12]
William Alwyn (1905-1985)
Rhapsody for Piano Quartet (1938) [8:44]
Cyril Scott (1879-1970)
Piano Quartet Op.16 (1899) [19:29]
Primrose Piano Quartet (Susanne Stanzeleit - violin; Susie Meszaros, viola; Bernard Gregor-Smith, cello; John Thwaites, piano)
rec. ‘during’ September 2005, St Edward the Confessor’s, Mottingham, London SE9.
MERIDIAN SOUND RECORDING CDE 84547 [66:33]

 

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.

Another reviewer 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 rather popular. 

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.

The programme 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 chamber music. 

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 dating.

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.

Interestingly, 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!

John France

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