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The Griller Quartet play English rarities
Arnold BAX (1883-1953) String Quartet no.1 in G major (1918) [24:29]
Cecil ARMSTRONG GIBBS (1889-1960) String Quartet in A major op.73 (1932) [17:07]
Elizabeth MACONCHY (1907-1994) Quintet for Oboe and Strings (1932) [12:05]
Edric CUNDELL (1893-1961) String Quartet in C op.27 (1932) [17:53]
Griller Quartet with Helen Gaskell (oboe)
rec. 17 and 25 April 1941 AK1009/12 (Bax); 3 May 1933 B4450/2 (Gibbs); 21 April 1933 B4448/9 (Maconchy); 18 April 1933 B4442/4 (Cundell). ADD
DUTTON CDBP 9762 [72:34]
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The roll-call of the Griller Quartet in British music is long and distinguished; not to mention catholic. Many will know them from their all but complete cycle of the Bloch quartets (on Decca). In addition they participated in the first recording of Bax’s Nonet alongside Goossens, Thurston and Korchinska. Bax’s Third Quartet was dedicated to and premiered by them in 1937 and the year before that they participated in the premiere of Rubbra’s Spenser song-cycle Amoretti. Bliss’s String Quartet No. 2 was written as a tribute to them on their twentieth anniversary. Howard Ferguson’s Octet was recorded by them with Dennis Brain and others. They premiered Rawsthorne’s Second Quartet in 1954 at the Wigmore Hall. Reginald Kell premiered William Wordsworth Clarinet Quintet with them in 1952.

The present collection will be a must-buy among the many admirers of British music. Its documentary value is incontrovertible. Dutton offer all three prize-winning works from the Daily Telegraph 1933 Chamber Music competition. Anyone see any national newspaper doing anything similar now? The works were recorded as part of the prize on Decca 10-inch 78s.

The Bax quartet is his first numbered work in the genre. Several un-numbered ones pre-date it. The First Quartet comes up fresh as paint in the hands of Decca, the Grillers and Dutton. It’s a cheery life-enhancing work in its outer movements with a decidedly Dvořákian bucolic character and with a buzzing and whirling Gopak-style finale. It yet finds time and repose for one of those blessedly long-limbed melodies for which Bax should be famous. He pulls of a similar glorious piece of touching invention in the Piano Quintet. There is an earlier recording from the Marie Wilson Quartet on National Gramophone Society 78s but this has never been issued on CD (or LP for that matter).

While I had known the Griller-Bax 1 for years due to the kindness of a friend who had copied the recording onto cassette the Armstrong Gibbs and Maconchy were new to me.

The Armstrong Gibbs, we are told by Lewis Foreman who provides the superb accompanying notes, is one of seven such quartets. It is more tense than the Bax with emotional ambivalence playing across the three movements in much the same haunted haunting manner as is found in the 1920s chamber music of Herbert Howells and in the ensemble writing in Warlock’s The Curlew. The fugal-style of the final few minutes seems to me at odds with the elusive subtlety of the rest of the work.

In Maconchy’s atmospheric oboe quintet the soloist is a young Helen Gaskell. This is the same Helen Gaskell who took the cor anglais part in the 1949 BBC premiere of Bax’s Concertante (cor anglais, clarinet, French horn) with Sargent conducting. Like the Armstrong Gibbs the quintet is by no means a simple work and its moods shift and colour with the passing moment. It has a propensity for melancholic reflection which takes it close to Warlock’s Curlew again. This is shaken off to some degree in the gracious strolling song of the finale. Its folk-songfulness, recalling her teacher Vaughan Williams, is a subdued rather than unclouded thing. Clearly these were uncertain times.

Edric Cundell carried off the first prize of £100 with this four movement quartet. He is now completely unknown so an introduction may help set the scene.

Cundell was born in London on 29 January 1893. His grandmother had been an opera singer in Paris and both his parents were musical. He went to Haberdashers Aske’s School and then studied horn with Adolf Borsdorf of the LSO. He was amongst the orchestra in that capacity for the Covent Garden opera season in 1912 when Nikisch conducted the Ring Cycle. He obtained a piano scholarship to the Trinity College of Music where apart from his time with Borsdorf he also had piano lessons from Henry Bird.

During the Great War he served with a commission in the RASC. He went to Salonika and was attached with his unit to the Serbian Army. For his distinguished conduct in one particular engagement he was awarded the Serbian Order of the White Eagle.

He was on the teaching staff at Trinity College from 1920 as well as undertaking some private tuition. At the same time he was conductor of the Westminster Orchestral Society, the same year (1920) that he married the sculptress Helena Harding Scott with whom he had two children. He gained the Hammond Endowment Grant (£200) for composition. In 1924 he was appointed Director of the Stock Exchange Orchestra. 1925 was the year he went on an extensive examination tour of the USA and New Zealand. Towards the end of the 1920s he went on a similar tour of South Africa conducting the Cape Town Orchestra in his tone poem Serbia and the Symphony.

Cundell founded his own chamber orchestra. He joined the music staff of Glyndebourne in 1937. When Landon Ronald stepped down as Principal of Trinity College Cundell succeeded him. He was closely associated with the Royal Philharmonic Society throughout the Second World War. During the conflict he occasionally conducted the BBCSO as well as other national (particularly the LPO) and regional orchestras.

In 1946 he conducted the National Symphony Orchestra in the film The Magic Bow, a life of Paganini in which Yehudi Menuhin was heard in the Beethoven Concerto and various of Paganini’s own works. He became a C.B.E. in 1949. Cundell was Chairman of the Festival of Britain Music Panel (1951).

He made a special study of Mozart’s operas and conducted some notable performances including one in 1939 with the GSM students. In 1952 he led a fine performance of Verdi’s Falstaff. He retired from his music appointments in 1959. His family home was at 3 Acacia Gardens, London NW8. He was a keen artist with a ready talent for sketching and water colours. Very much a London figure he died there on 19 March 1961.

His output includes the following works for orchestra: Suite for strings; Symphonic Poem Serbia (1919, written during his war service and dedicated to King Alexander of Serbia, Bournemouth April 1920, Proms 1920 conducted by the composer); Poem, The Tragedy of Deirdre Op. 17 (1922); Sonnet, Our Dead for tenor and orchestra (Prom, Gervase Elwes); Symphony in C minor Op. 24 (1924); Serenade for strings; two suites and a Piano Concerto;

His chamber music catalogue extends amongst others to the following: Piano Quartet Op. 15 (1922); String Quartet Op. 18 (1922); String Quartet in C (the one recorded here); String Quartet in G minor; Sextet for soprano, tenor, bass, violin, viola and cello; Rhapsody for viola and piano. For piano solo there are: Valse Fantasque Op. 16 (1922); The Water Babies parts 1 and 2 (for the young). The choral works include Hymn to Providence for chorus and orchestra and a Mass (latin text, unaccompanied). There are numerous songs.

Cundell conducted the premiere of Malcolm Arnold’s Toy Symphony at the Savoy Hotel in 1957. He also directed the first performance of Bax’s Fantasies on Polish Christmas Carols in 1945. Benjamin Frankel dedicated his Youth Music to Cundell. Cundell also conducted the premiere of Elizabeth Maconchy’s Bassoon Concertino when the bassoonist was Gwydion Brooke.

Cundell’s four movement quartet op. 27 is unflaggingly energetic to the point where it might be regarded as almost too busy. As relief we get a not unclouded fleetingly outlined melody amid the scathing Warlockian activity. This is developed further in the warmly cocooned Adagio which rises to moments of surprisingly Zemlinskian complexity. The spiky little Presto reminded me of Frank Bridge and even Britten.

The illuminating notes which conjure up the days in which these recordings were first released are by the reliable and uniquely knowledgeable Lewis Foreman.

Three string quartets and an oboe quintet. Apart from the Bax none of these could be described as music of forthright lyricism but the sense of change and chill is strong in the three 1932 works.

Rob Barnett


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