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Nicholas MAW (b. 1935)
String Quartet No.3 (1994) [22:01]
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913–1976)

String Quartet No.3 Op.94 (1975) [27:14]
Three Divertimenti (1936) [10:30]
Coull Quartet
rec. St. Paul’s Church, Birmingham, November 2005
SOMM SOMMCD 065 [60:02]






During the LP era, Nicholas Maw’s music was reasonably well served in terms of commercial recordings. These culminated in two outstanding recordings of what I regard as two of Maw’s finest works, Scenes and Arias (now re-issued on Lyrita SRCD.267 reviewed here) and Life Studies (now re-issued on NMC Ancora D085 - review). Up to that time, however, Maw had composed comparatively little, but the prolonged gestation of the monumental Odyssey, which was recorded several years ago, seems to have fired Maw’s muse again, with evident results. His list of works grew steadily and still does, and recordings of a number of his major works were eventually released - among others by ASV, Nimbus, Sony and – more recently – Hyperion. It all means that his present discography is far from negligible, although a number of works still await recording. I have long been wishing for a recording of his four string quartets. So, the present release partly fulfils this wish, at long last. I hope that Somm and the Coull Quartet will not need too much persuasion to record the other three.

The String Quartet No.3, completed in 1994 to mark the Coull Quartet’s 21st anniversary, is a substantial work in five movements played without a break. The last of these is an imposing Passacaglia, as in Britten’s final string quartet also recorded here. The first movement Moderato grazioso displays some almost childlike, though definitely not childish, innocence. It’s a fine example of what I have always considered Maw’s inborn lyricism. The next movement Larghetto pesante may be regarded as the first slow movement, described as "a folk dirge" by the composer. There follows a pair of Scherzos, the first one Presto volante played mostly muted being a ghostlike Nocturne and the second Allegro marcato described as "a stamping dance" but maybe, more seriously, a brutal gesture of revolt. A short reprise of the Larghetto pesante leads into the impressive, and often deeply moving Passacaglia. This concludes with a veiled reminiscence of the opening movement. Maw’s Third String Quartet is an emotionally and expressively varied work of substance and splendour.

The two works by Britten recorded here roughly come from both ends of his composing life. The Three Divertimenti are the three completed movements of a suite that was to consist of five movements: musical portraits of some of his friends. The suite, Go play, boy, play with the added and slightly ironic subtitle Alla Quartetto Serioso, was never completed. The existing movements were revised and first performed in February 1936 and "received with sniggers and in a pretty cold silence". The opening March is a rather sardonic and at times unpredictable one, not unlike the slightly earlier Alla Marcia (1933), which eventually found its way in the opening sequence Parades in Les Illuminations. The Waltz and the Burlesque, too, have their share of irony. No wonder that the first performance raised some eyebrows amongst some of the British musical establishment of the time. This youthful work undoubtedly displays Britten’s consummate instrumental mastery; something that was to stay with him throughout his composing life.

The Third String Quartet is a much better known work, were it only because there exist several recordings of it - by the Lindsay and the Maggini, to name but the ones I have on my shelves. Britten’s String Quartet No.3 Op.94 is obliquely connected to his final opera Death in Venice. It briefly reuses some of the opera’s material. Like Maw’s Third String Quartet, Britten’s piece is laid-out in five movements: three rather developed movements separated by two Scherzos. It too ends with a rather desolate Passacaglia, that – to these ears at least – sounds as an "Intimation of Mortality". I must admit that some of Britten’s late works - Sacred and Profane, Death in Venice and – to a lesser extent – Phaedra - still leave me with a painfully unanswered question: Is the economy of means noticeable in these works the result of a lifelong search for economy or has the composer simply dried-out in his last, illness-stricken years? Curiously enough, the Third String Quartet was never part of this questioning of mine. Do not ask me why, because I am afraid that I will not be able to provide a suitable, reasoned answer. Might it be because I rather unconsciously feel that Britten dares open his heart in this work, and voices his own personal concerns with death as a result of the severe heart disease he suffered in his final years? Whatever the answer, I firmly believe that the Third String Quartet is not only a worthy successor to the earlier ones, but one of Britten’s finest and most sincere works.

The Coull Quartet’s carefully prepared and entirely committed readings are just superb. The recording is very fine. As already hinted earlier in this review, I would have preferred to have another of Maw’s string quartets rather than the pieces by Britten but the pairing of these apparently different pieces works remarkably well. This fine release is a must for all Maw admirers, who – like me – still keep their fingers crossed and wait patiently for the forthcoming (I hope) recordings of Maw’s other quartets. This, however, is one of the finest discs I have heard recently.

Hubert Culot

see also NICHOLAS MAW: A RECENT DISCOGRAPHY AND MUSIC REVIEW by Hubert Culot (dates from 2001)

 

 

 


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