Sir William WALTON (1902-1983)
String Quartet (1919-22) [35:17]
String Quartet in A minor (1944-47) [26:47]
Doric String Quartet (Alex Redington (violin); Jonathan Stone (violin); Simon Tandree (viola); John Myerscough (cello))
rec. 14-16 July 2010, Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk, England. DDD
CHANDOS CHAN 10661 [62:17]

I was especially enthralled by this new Chandos release. I doubt if there are any string quartets composed by British composers that would be considered core repertoire. Probably the quartets by Britten, Tippett, Elgar and more recently the set from Peter Maxwell Davies are those that might be encountered, if only rarely. There are fine quartets by Howells, Bridge, Bax and Delius that I feel deserve to be heard far more often. This excellent account of the Walton string quartets makes a splendid case for these scores to be considered up there among the finest British string quartets.

The teenage Walton wrote his first string quartet in 1919-22. This fledgling work received a mixed response at its première in 1923. Subsequently withdrawn, revisions were made including heavy cuts. One of his more avant-garde works, Walton described the three movement score as “full of undigested Bartók and Schoenberg”. This performance from the Doric Quartet is the première recording of the original full-length version as edited by Hugh MacDonald for Oxford University Press’s William Walton Edition.

Its opening movement comprises highly chromatic writing with an intense searching quality. In the Scherzo the dancing figures feel rather brusque and frenetic. A calmer central section comes as a welcome relief. A contrasting passage with high harmonics contains an eerie quality. Starting in a world-weary manner the nature of the lengthy concluding movement Fuga is predominantly rugged and occasionally astringent. The writing bursts with rhythmic activity and vigour.

It was some twenty-five years after the first quartet that Walton produced his String Quartet in A minor. The Blech Quartet premièred the four movement score to considerable acclaim in 1947 on a broadcast for the BBC Third Programme. It seems that the quartet had been conceived as early as the 1930s but it was wartime and more pressing projects such as composing film scores took precedence. This A minor String Quartet was later transcribed as the Sonata for String Orchestra by the composer who was assisted in final movement by Malcolm Arnold. It was premièred in 1972 and given a later revision prior to publication.

The opening movement of the A minor Quartet is yearning and highly Romantic. Its attractive melodic quality is contrasted with energetic rhythms. Light-footed and unrelenting the Scherzo feels like running at speed through the darkness in an inner city street. The slow movement could portray a languid river journey on a small boat drifting downstream. A brisk and highly agitated Finale: Rondo contains a substantial and memorable highly lyrical passage. Overall in the final movement I would have preferred a heavier bite to the Doric’s attack.

The release is splendidly presented by Chandos with an excellent essay by Anthony Burton. Recorded at Potton Hall the sound quality is clear and well balanced. The two string quartets demonstrate contrasting sides of Walton: young and experimental with mature and conservative. I found the disc thoroughly enjoyable and I’m sure I will return to it often.

Michael Cookson

Thoroughly enjoyable and I’m sure I will return to it often.

see also review by Gavin Dixon