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The British Book
Judith WEIR (b. 1954)

String Quartet (1990) [13:27]
Edward ELGAR (1857–1934)

String Quartet in E minor Op.83 (1918) [26:11]
Peter Maxwell DAVIES (b. 1934)

Little Quartet No.1 (1980) [8:50]
Little Quartet No.2 (1977, rev. 1987) [4:03]
rec. MDR Chorsaal, Augustplatz, Leipzig, April, December 2005
GENUIN GEN 86065 [52:59]


The Weir and the Maxwell Davies quartets were new to me and my search for alternative recordings has been unsuccessful. Weir’s Quartet – only her second work for string ensemble after the String Trio of 1985 – was originally written for the Endellion Quartet in 1990. It is in part based on a number of her songs, though these are pretty much of a starting-point. The result is a highly substantial, strongly emotional composition with plenty of attractive textures; her consciously avoiding techniques such as col legno results in an extremely well-crafted work full of atmosphere.

Equally impressive are the two Little Quartets by Maxwell Davies which have not yet been released by Naxos. The second had a spectacular genesis: initially composed for Henze’s 1977 Montepulciano Festival, it was lost in the mail, and was re-written only in 1987, five years after the composition of the first quartet. The first Little Quartet with its sparse textures in the first movement, the lively second and the lyrical third, as well as the short (some 4 minutes) one-movement second Little Quartet offer plenty of opportunities for the members of one of the foremost East German orchestras to excel technically. They tackle this unusual repertoire at the highest level of accomplishment.

In the company of the more contemporary works the Elgar attains a somewhat different quality. This is aided by a kind of "Germanic" approach which places the work even more firmly in the Beethoven–Brahms–Schoenberg tradition. This adds certain aspects though it also takes away quite a bit of Elgar’s famous "Englishness"; what I would like to call the "Elgarian line" which is a very typical way of melodic invention and development. For my part, when listening to Elgar I want to hear Elgar and not a German tradition - one might sometimes even call it "ignorance" - which sadly I have to encounter fairly regularly when German ensembles perform British music. I soon became bored by this interpretation. The mere expression of Elgar’s compositional techniques does not in itself result in a lively performance. This is somewhat self-contented and self-contained though technically speaking at an exceptionally secure level.

Sadly, the booklet notes display the usual ignorance of British music - knowledge of Elgar in Germany is still in a deplorable state - and the English translation is in part even worse. The translators apparently did not know what a Master of the Queen’s Music is. Thus this engaging undertaking is marred by a few drawbacks. Still, the overall impression is favourable, especially with regard to the value of the new recordings of the Weir and Maxwell Davies. The recording engineers of Mid-German Radio (mdr) offer excellent sound in an appropriate acoustics

Jürgen Schaarwächter

See also review by Hubert Culot


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