William WALTON (1902-1983)
Piano Quartet in D minor (1919) [28:49]
Frank BRIDGE (1879-1941)
Phantasy in F minor (1910) [12:24]
Guillaume LEKEU (1870-1894)
Piano Quartet (1893) [23:25]
Frith Piano Quartet (Benjamin Frith (piano); Robert Heard (violin): Louise Williams (viola): Richard Jenkinson (cello))
rec. Oak Hall, Rhos-y-Gilwen Mansion, Pembrokeshire, 24-26 October 2010
Walton’s Piano Quartet is a work of the composer’s precocious youth, written when he was only sixteen years of age. It was given a hammering in print by Ernest Newman in the Sunday Times when he was reviewing (favourably) the first public performance of Façade: “All I knew of this young man’s music before Tuesday was a horrible quartet of his that was given at the Royal College of Music three or four years ago. On the strength of this, I take leave to dislike intensely Mr Walton’s serious music – if, indeed, that quartet was serious and was music, both of which I doubt.” But Walton was an inveterate reviser of his own work – Façade, Belshazzar’s Feast, the Viola Concerto, the march Crown Imperial, the Sinfonia concertante - all underwent this process – and he went back to this quartet too in the last years of his life, making alterations to the score.
Walton’s amendments were sometimes ill-considered – one thinks of the opening of Cressida’s aria in Troilus and Cressida, which still begins in the revised score with a reminiscence of the preceding chorus which Walton had excised in 1962 – but usually they were improvements. The booklet note gives no hint whatsoever that the work was ever retouched by the composer after it was first published in 1924. It is not clear whether this performance gives us Walton’s original thoughts or his later reconsiderations; comparison with the recording by the Nash Ensemble (using the revised version) on Chandos would seem to imply that what we have here are not Walton’s first teenage thoughts. Be that as it may, there is nothing here which would seem to warrant Newman’s vituperation. Perhaps he just heard a bad performance by (presumably) student players. These players are most certainly not students, and their performance is most certainly not bad. Their attack in the scherzo is superbly rhythmic; their playing in the tranquil slow movement delectable; and their assault on the vigorous finale passionate and heartfelt. This last movement is a superbly feisty bit of writing, with a sense of headlong drive which anticipates Belshazzar’s Feast, and the players enjoy every minute of it, rampaging fearlessly through some ferociously difficult passages.
Like the Walton, if not quite so precocious, the work by Bridge is also an early one; but ‘early’ in the case of Bridge means relatively late, because he was over thirty when his Phantasy was first performed; there had been an earlier Phantasie Trio in 1907. Bridge had a long history as a chamber music player extending back to 1902, and this experience clearly shows in his idiomatic writing for the players. Oddly enough it has a less classical feel than the Walton which precedes it on this disc, despite its earlier date; this was clearly partly the product of Bridge’s employment of the ‘fantasy’ form, but it also looks forward to the days after the First World War when he would become one of the most ‘progressive’ of English composers. The often highly chromatic writing presents no difficulties to the string players here, and they bring a nicely light touch to the central Allegro section; Frith is in sparkling form and brings a lovely touch of reminiscent longing to the concluding bars.
It would not be appropriate to speak of early works in the context of Lekeu, as he never produced any late ones, dying one day after his twenty-fourth birthday. His last work, this Piano Quartet, was left as a torso with only two movements and the second of these had to be completed by the composer’s friend and teacher Vincent d’Indy. What we have is therefore a fragment of what was clearly intended to be a major work – Lekeu’s Piano Trio is an equally expansive score – and it has an impassioned and bold style. The trouble, as one constantly finds with Lekeu, is the sense of the composer’s pushing against the limits of chamber music; you feel he really wants and needs to work on a larger scale, and is being frustrated by the limited forces at his disposal. There is an Elgarian or Straussian personality at work here which needs room to expand. The players rise to the demands of the composer without being able to satisfy them completely. They attack the rushing opening of the first movement with all the headlong ferocity that is needed, and sustain the right mood of impetuosity throughout.
Apart from the fact that these are all ‘early’ works - although the Bridge is not that precocious, and the Lekeu was also his last work - there seems to be precious little to link the three quartets gathered on this disc; and that is unfortunate, since apart from those who rightly admire these players it is difficult to see precisely who this recording is intended to appeal to. Those who like twentieth century English music will want the Bridge and Walton, if they do not have them already, but will not necessarily want the Lekeu; those who like music of the school of César Franck - Lekeu was Belgian, like Franck who was his teacher before d’Indy - would probably look for a coupling of other music of that era. Either group would miss some glorious performances of some wonderful music here. The recording is superbly balanced in a nicely resonant acoustic which frames the performances of these excellent artists perfectly.
Paul Corfield Godfrey
Glorious performances of some wonderful music.