Arthur BLISS (1891-1975)
String Quartet No. 2 (1950) [31:31]
Frederick DELIUS (1862-1934)
Late Swallows [9:32]
Henry PURCELL (1659-1695) arr. Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Chacony in G minor [6:44]
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
String Quartet No 2 in C Major, Op 36 (1945) [30:12]
Barbirolli Quartet
rec. 21, 22, 27 April 2011, Nimbus Concert Hall, Wyastone Leys, Monmouth, Wales

For this release the Barbirolli Quartet has chosen an all English programme. I have heard them play in recital in 2008 and 2010 so it was good to receive this recording and assess their progress.

The Britten is becoming a more frequently played score and one that I have heard the Barbirolli Quartet perform in recital. By contrast Blissís String Quartet No. 2 is rarely heard although its quality makes it worthy of attention. The two remaining works are Deliusís string quartet movement Late Swallows and Purcellís Chacony arranged by Britten for string quartet.

The music of Sir Arthur Bliss seems very much out of fashion in current concert and recital programmes. Congratulations are due mainly to the Naxos label for saving the composer from almost total neglect. In relation to the prevailing dynamic of the day Bliss was considered something of an enfant terrible and an avant-gardist; terms not generally used to describe his cohorts who had studied under Sir Charles Villiers Stanford at the Royal College of Music, London. The progressive and intrepid side to Blissís music gradually became secondary as his concentration on Romantic idioms increased.

Blissís Second String Quartet written in 1950 a decade after his String Quartet No. 1 was intended as a birthday present to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the Griller Quartet. In his autobiography ĎAs I Rememberí [Faber and Faber, London (1970)] Bliss explained how the four movement score grew into the most substantial chamber work that he had attempted. In a windswept opening movement Allegro con spirito the contrasting moods are played with an impressive unison by the Barbirolli Quartet creating a rather dark shadowy character. Highly reflective the Sostenuto contains a sense of solitude and a degree of underlying unease. I enjoyed the brisk and highly spirited playing from the Barbirolli in the Scherzo marked Vivo e con brio of Blissís jagged and often barbed textures. In ĎAs I Rememberí Bliss wrote that where the Scherzo was concerned he was certain that he had not written so brilliantly for strings. In the hands of the Barbirolli the closing movement Larghetto - Allegro has a deeply yearning personality interrupted by writing of anxiety laden dissonance.

I am highly satisfied with this interpretation of Blissís demanding Second String Quartet by the Barbirolli and I wouldnít look elsewhere for another account. I have fine accounts of the Bliss Second String Quartet played by the Griller Quartet/Dutton; Delmť String Quartet/Hyperion and the Maggini Quartet/Naxos but this insightful recording from the Barbirolli is outstanding and takes centre-stage.

As a young man Britten was fascinated by the genre of the string quartet and there survives a number of works, in various stages of completion that he composed before his twentieth birthday. These include two unpublished String Quartets: one in F major (1928) and a second in D major (1931). Spanning thirty-four years, the three mature officially numbered String Quartets undoubtedly form the core of Brittenís considerable achievement in the genre. I have always considered Brittenís String Quartet No. 3, Op. 94 (1975) as one of his finest scores and a masterwork of the genre.

Brittenís three movement String Quartet No.2 was composed in Britain in 1945 shortly after the successful premiŤre of his masterpiece the opera Peter Grimes. In 1945 Britten had toured Germany as piano accompanist to the violinist Yehudi Menuhin, who had agreed to perform for the survivors of the Nazi concentration camps; including the infamous Belsen camp. Britten must have been profoundly affected by his experiences on the recital tour and it was upon his return that he completed the quartet. The Barbirolli convincing convey the contrasting moods of the opening movement Allegro calmo, senza rigore that shift between vigorous nervous anxiety to a feeling of near exhaustion. Marked Vivace the disconcerting central movement Scherzo is played with an abundance of bite and nervous agitation. In the final movement Britten pays homage to Purcell by writing an eighteen minute Chacony (or Chaconne) consisting of a theme and set of variations over a continually repeated ground bass. Here the splendid Barbirolli play with accuracy and a resilient intensity creating a mood of bewildering tension.

Of the competing accounts of the Britten String Quartet No. 2 I admire the performance from the Sorrel Quartet on Chandos CHAN 9664. This is most assured providing great penetration and impressive insight. The recording is complemented by exceptionally clear and warm sonics. A significant bonus is the coupling of Brittenís unpublished String Quartet in F major (1928) and String Quartet in D major (1931). Like many of Brittenís early scores they are of a high quality and should not be ignored.

Delius was around fifty-four years of age when he completed his original three movement version of his String Quartet of 1916. The next year he undertook a major revision which included adding a Scherzo. Probably more revision was undertaken to fashion the version we have presented here that was introduced in 1919. Especially attractive, the slow third movement titled Late Swallows is often played as a stand-alone work as it is here by the Barbirolli. Delius must have been pleased with the movement as he requested his amanuensis Eric Fenby made an arrangement of Late Swallows for string orchestra. Playing with a deep affection the Barbirolli are very much at one with the gentle pastoral quality of the writing. Although an attractive piece I have always felt that this uneventful music rather outstays its welcome.

For those wanting an account of the complete Delius String Quartet I would suggest trying to track down the beautifully played 1995 Bristol recording from the Britten Quartet on EMI Classics 5 55349 2. I can also recommend the highly desirable coupling of Howellsís Fantasy String Quartet and String Quartet No.3 ĎIn Gloucestershireí.

Benjamin Britten held a long affection for the music of English baroque composer Henry Purcell. In 1948 (revised 1963) Britten made this string quartet arrangement of Purcellís Chacony in G minor a late-seventeenth century work thought to have been intended for viol consort. Beautifully realised by the Barbirolli there is a meditative quality to the music that washed over this listener like balm.

The rapid progress of the Barbirolli has been remarkable. Their impeccable preparation and stylish unison certainly pays dividends in this fine recording of English music for Nimbus Alliance. I hope it isnít too long before I see the Barbirolli Quartet again in recital.

Michael Cookson

Music that washed over this listener like balm.