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Colin BAYLISS (b. 1948)
String Quartet No. 1 (1987) [44:02]
String Quartet No. 2 (1981 rev. 1990) [21:39]
String Quartet No. 3 (1994) [13:39]
String Quartet No. 4 (1997) [22:33]
String Quartet No. 5 From the Frieze of Life (1999) [18:42]
String Quartet No. 6 Lochrian (2000) [28:42]
The Lochrian Ensemble
rec. no details given
NEW CENTURY CLASSICS NCC2004/5 [79:20 + 69:57]
Experience Classicsonline


Review of Piano Sonatas, Organ music recordings
Website £13.50 incl. P&P

Colin Bayliss was born in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire and is a productive determined and seemingly indefatigable creator of music. This sixty year old composer's catalogue includes two operas, four symphonies, ten concertos and three piano sonatas. There is every sign that this list will continue to lengthen and I hope that we will get to hear the orchestral works as well as those for chamber groupings.

The six quartets on this set date from the 1990s. They declare, as does the composer's revealing liner-note, his awe and love for the quartets of Bartók, Janáček and Shostakovich. The mark of these composers, especially the first and last, can be felt in the long First Quartet. The four movements are packed with prickly life, accommodating both melody and dissonant fibre. The music chitters, grunts, rages and serenades. Ostinati are launched at the drop of a hat and the accents of the melodies that volplane and curvet above a typical Bayliss ostinato often have a mid-European tang.

The Second Quartet is only half as long as the First. It began life as the First Piano Sonata. This work seems at first slightly more relaxed than the predominantly earnest First. It has overtones of nostalgia and a haunted sense of life lived at high summer - such as you might find in the exuberance of Smetana's First Quartet. The haunting becomes more tense and forward in the second movement with moments of serial gravity relieved by an almost pastoral lyricism. This recalled for me the atmosphere of the last two quartets by Frank Bridge. The finale gambols along at speed like a rapidly sketched summation of all that has gone before - and those Eastern European flavours return.

The Third Quartet reworks Bayliss's Signatures for solo viola. The composer claims parallels with a divertimento but again the subject matter is shot through, across its six mosaic movements, with as much tragedy as entertainment. Once again his telling trademark of ostinato-with-melody can be heard (end of first movement tr. 9). The modal Scottish folk melody which the composer mentions, but does not identify, provides a unifying element. This quartet, with its sequence of six very short movements, provides a sort of quintessence of the Bayliss style and a succinct digest of many of his fingerprints. The practice of structures in small interleaved plates is again applied in the Fourth Quartet which is in no less than thirteen segments played continuously. The movements each take a single note of the tone row; resolution is provided in the final adagio. The language here is sometimes more extremely dissonant than in the earlier works. Percussive effects provide impactful ostinatos as at tr. 6, On the other hand searching Bergian melodies of great beauty also sing out as in the andante piacevole (4). The pattering dissonance and Stravinsky-like stomp of the allegro molto is full of dynamic contrast. The final adagietto is an impressive rounding out to a work accommodating great differences and subtle collisions. There are so many contrasts and sharp-turns here that we might well regard this work as a sort of character-analogue of Pictures at an Exhibition.

The Fifth Quartet is based on three paintings by the great Norwegian painter Edvard Munch. The first is the famous The Scream - a painting of remarkable resonance in the 20th century. The Scream can be heard, often quietly, in all its shredded despair and horror but we also get the preamble and rationale. Bayliss nicely catches the remorseless of the path to the climactic scream and the melted and charred psychological landscapes of the mind that lead to it. Melancholy uses a beautiful and gently sorrowing Norwegian folk song Millom bakkar og berg ut met havet. It’s a remarkably done piece and the one which I would encourage Bayliss novitiates to start with. The movement ends with a humming shudder that fades to niente. The finale, The Dance of Life, again employs percussive effects as well as those Smetana intimations mentioned above. They pick up the crash of old folk dances which have become innocent, purged of danger by convention and patterned rules with the more threateningly overt feral sexuality of the tango. The movement ends with an ambivalent repeated moan and a quietly breathing figure.

In a formal concession to symmetry the last quartet (to date) - named after the ensemble who were to record all six quartets - Bayliss returns to four movement format. The first is quite romantic with an oceanic swell and surge and with lyrical material to the fore. After a wispy pattering scherzo full of light, air, ostinatos and silky dissonance comes an affectionate and almost sentimental adagio with a passing resemblance to Valse Triste. Its smooth aspects are disturbed by a sort of panic-suffused dissonance and it is this element which opens the movement. The finale ends with a passive questioning gesture.

These recordings are closely miked to capture vivacious and nuanced music-making with apt vitality. There are some explosive pizzicati here which are lent impact as much by microphone placement as by the players.

Anyone who has any interest in the string quartet in the twentieth century has no choice - they must hear these impressive works. These works stand in the company of Bridge, Bartók and Shostakovich and are by no means dwarfed by them.

Rob Barnett


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