Robert CRAWFORD (b.1925)
String Quartets: No. 1 (1949) [26.15]; No. 2 (1956-7) [16.58]; No. 3 (2008) [19.39]
The Edinburgh Quartet
rec. St. Michael’s Parish Church, Inverness, 10-12 March 2010
DELPHIAN DCD 34091 [63.00]

Influences? I first thought of Bartók, certainly the 1st Quartet started a little like him. However, in the way that the opening movement is constructed I thought of Elizabeth Maconchy 2nd Quartet - just a simple four-note fragment F-D-E-F. The work is not twelve-tone but is dedicated to Benjamin Frankel - who himself wrote five quartets - Crawford’s teacher for a while at the Guildhall School of Music and to whom he owes an enormous debt of support. Frankel, anyway, took a laissez-faire view of serial technique. Back in Edinburgh where the quartet was completed in late 1949 it was Hans Gál with whom he once studied privately that might have been an influence. This can be heard in the lyrical Adagio cantabile of the same work. Walton was also the rage at the time and Crawford writes a rather creepy but passionate fugue for the slow finale. The Scherzo may also be Bartókian but some of the rhythmic interplay is Waltonian.

But ... but … but this is all nonsense really, Crawford has a unique voice and one which has been hidden away for too long. I myself had failed to hear any of his music until I reviewed earlier this year (2011) the Metier disc of some of his works with recorder and clarinet (msv 28520). Speaking of the 1st Quartet it is a four movement work for which the composer asks, at the top of the score, according to Adam Binks’ excellent booklet essay, for the minimum of vibrato. It is sometimes a freely atonal work yet a key-centre can normally be detected through its chromaticism.

For me the 2nd Quartet does not quite work. It is in three movements of ever-increasing speed: Adagio, Allegretto and finally Allegro molto marked Scherzando. It is based partially on a 12-tone row. From that point of view it is a child of the 1950s. The music is never atonal however. In fact the row is heard as a ground bass in the first movement - a little like Robert Simpson might have done - and is also treated imitatively. The Leggiero middle movement is described by Adam Binks as a “mischievous Scherzo” which I agree with. Then he says, about the rondo form finale, that it is a climax of “mounting tension”. I cannot see his point; he enjoins us to discover that the ‘tension is “released only in the final bars”. Well, I’m sorry but I feel no tension in this performance or in this rather genial work. The final Scherzando ends in an under-stated, rather matter-of-fact manner. I felt that another more exciting, say Presto movement, is needed to crown the work.

So it was with slightly mixed feelings that I approached the 3rd Quartet. Not that the Edinburgh Quartet, who know the composer’s work well, or the recording and its acoustics would be the problem; quite the reverse as these performers and this venue are exemplary. The former I have heard in Hans Gál and elsewhere. The venue has been used before. Indeed I know the fine, Ninian Comper-inspired episcopal church very well. I was however concerned that the music should ‘grab’ me a little more. Well, I’m sorry to say that it doesn’t entirely do that. This is a melancholy and at times moving four-movement piece based in a vague way on a tone row. It has a fleeting and crepuscular Scherzo which comes second but which fails to lighten in any way the atmosphere. Set this alongside a tense Mesto third movement and a Moderato finale which only serves to recapitulate the mood of the rest. There seems to be no particular moment of climax or of excitement. Certainly the music does not ramble but the form seems unclear. On the other hand it is a work to which I will happily return. Probably you will feel a little muddled by my comments but that’s what music does to us sometimes.

So the CD comes with some reservations from me. It is worth pursuing and persevering with and I hope that the newly completed 4th Quartet is recorded in the near future.

Gary Higginson

Some reservations but worth pursuing and persevering with.