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Fast Forward – Into the Millennium
Kevin MALONE (b.1958)
Fast Forward (1990) [5:07]
David ELLIS (b.1933)
String Quartet No.2 (1996) [14:42]
John CASKEN (b.1949)
String Quartet No.2 (1993) [22:15]
Robin WALKER (b.1953)
I thirst [7:39]
Geoffrey POOLE (b.1949)
String Quartet No.2 (1989) [21:42]
Anthony GILBERT (b.1934)
String Quartet No.3 [7:00]
Camerata Ensemble (Malone, Walker, Poole); Coull Quartet (Ellis); The Lindsays (Casken); Nossek Quartet (Gilbert)
rec. February 1999, ASC Studio, Macclesfield (Malone, Walker, Poole), April 1998, RNCM Manchester (Gilbert), October 1996, St. John’s Smith Square, London (Casken), March 1998, BBC Studio 7, Manchester (Ellis).
ASC CSCD11 [78:58]
Experience Classicsonline

The feeling that the contents of this disc belong to the previous century and the anticipation of the new millennium is to some extent emphasised by the leap back in time to MusicWeb International’s earlier days you get when looking at the layout of Hubert Culot’s review from June 2000 (Editor - is this the longest period between reviews of the same recording on these pages?).

The title refers directly to this change from the 20th to the 21st century, and the opening piece Fast Forward is Kevin Malone’s compact contribution to this fascinating programme. This work exists in other instrumentations, but there is never a feel that it is anything other than idiomatic for the medium of the string quartet. Monothematic and quite elemental, the material mixes the basic materials of musicians as they practise their scales and arpeggios, and is in some ways a minimalist piece, without having that ostinato basis which is often a characteristic of that style. It’s an effective fusion of traditional notes into a thoroughly energetic ‘modern’ sounding work – my only extra wish being some kind of modulation somewhere.
 
String Quartet No.2 by David Ellis is a three movement work of considerable substance. The heft of the sombre opening implies a journey of some emotional depth, and the scale of the piece and its arching forms do not disappoint on this count. The slow processional opening is transformed downwards into a more serene, if more austere conclusion, which can be heard as a transition to the scherzo-like central movement. Muted strings retain the restrained feel of the opening however, and the more angular melodic shapes are held in check by the close harmonies of accompanying figurations. The rhythmic pulse of this movement drives forward, but has an irregular nature which is hard to pin down. The third movement returns to the atmosphere of the opening, but soon introduces different colours and jagged interruptions. The material of the opening returns as a final coda, bringing us home from troubled but stimulating travels.
 
Another String Quartet No.2, this time by John Casken. Such titles imply tradition, and Casken admits acknowledging the classical four-movement model. He “wanted to see if [his] own concerns for colour and dramatic event, for the melos (singing quality) and for the dance of the music, could be realised within such a tightly-structured framework.” All of these qualities can be found in this music, with a transparency of voicing and texture which is quite appealing, despite Casken’s uncompromisingly modern idiom. The four movements contrast effectively, the filigree complexities of the opening movement pushed aside by the ‘jazzy obstinacy’ of the second. The third movement is marked to be played ‘with haunted fascination’, the muted lyrical gestures appearing over a musette drone. The fourth movement develops rhythmic pizzicato against a jig-like dance, and builds up a magnificent state of excitement. The music from the previous movements is also integrated to form a suitable finale and give the work a heightened sense of continuity.
 
I thirst by Robin Walker derives its title from the Seven Last Words of Christ from the Cross, and has the kind of slow melodic yearning which such references would seem to imply. Close intervals in the melodies and harmonies, as well as octaves and the occasional open fifth, gives the piece a timeless, medieval feel. There is a central section on low harmonics which is quite beautiful.
 
The third String Quartet No.2 on this disc is by Geoffrey Poole, and is also the longest work in the programme. Like David Ellis’ work, this piece is also in three movements, but draws from entirely different sources. In his own notes, Poole mentions his fascination with African music, and this piece was his first ‘post-Kenya’ work after moving back to England in 1987. Far from drawing on stereotypical African rhythmic patterns, this work is a kind of filtration of images and atmospheres from the composers experiences abroad, expressed in a deeply personal but highly attractive idiom. The first movement has a ‘Sky-Earth’ duality, with soaring violin and thrumming cello providing clear aural clues. The second movement is “a fast moving comedy of errors or stylistic puns” – which would imply a good deal of humour, though this is disguised in some seriously well-written composition for the four strings. Fields of confused sound are interjected with periods of clarity, traditional scoring and intensely sanguine musical statement. The third movement has a ‘big theme’, Song of the Gambia. Six years after hearing a “hypnotic, impossible-to-catch Gambian song”, the composer’s interpretation transforms what must be a traditional melody into a majestic quartet movement, with the “baffling polyrythmic motion” being turned into a confluence between memory and two entirely disparate musical media. This is a piece which never outstays it’s over 20 minute duration, and is filled with subtlety and richness of expression which I find quite enthralling.
 
Anthony Gilbert’s String Quartet No.3 closes the programme with a single, intense movement which uses Machaut’s Gothic polyphony and an early, over-size version of the hurdy-gurdy as its starting points. This fascinating instrument, called an Organistrum, took two players to work it – one turning the drone wheel, and the other manning the string stops which provided the melody. The rather unrefined sounds from this kind of medieval keyboard and the melodies and harmonies from the period are used in “commentary and exaggeration”, and the form of the quartet is also one of tropes and texts.
 
This is a top notch production, in which some of the best quartets around play what turns out to be a programme of thoroughly stimulating and remarkably powerful music. There is some variability to the recorded sound between works, but with many being derived from BBC broadcast recordings and the like the quality is very high. I would recommend this to all fans of contemporary music, and it can stand proudly as a symbol for the best of late 20th century British chamber music.
 
Dominy Clements

see also review by Hubert Culot
 


 


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