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Robert STILL (1910-1971)
The Four String Quartets
String Quartet No.1 (c.1948) [16:39]
String Quartet No.2 [17:58]
String Quartet No.3 [22:22]
String Quartet No.4 [19:25]
Villiers Quartet (James Dickenson (violin); Tamaki Higashi (violin); Carmen Flores (viola); Nicholas Stringfellow (cello))
rec. Church of St. Silas the Martyr, London, UK, 20-21 January 2014 (1-2), 18-19 July 2013 (3-4)
NAXOS 8.571353 [76:24]

Visit the web pages dedicated to Robert Still - and you will see that apart from a privately produced CD of historical performances (review), this is the first and only CD wholly dedicated to his music. Most collectors who are acquainted with Still's music will probably have discovered it - as I did - via old Saga and Lyrita LPs and latterly a Lyrita CD of the Third and Fourth Symphonies (review). Those performances remain impressive and vital. All of which makes this disc introducing listeners to his four string quartets all the more valuable and eagerly anticipated.

Great credit must be given to the performers here, the Villiers Quartet, for the investment of time and effort that goes into preparing such wholly unfamiliar indeed unknown music. All the more credit when you realise that the leader of the quartet - James Dickenson - was also responsible for editing and creating performing editions of all four works. Having fulfilled exactly that role myself I know how much time and effort it takes to produce accurate, consistent playable parts that are clear and true to the composer's intentions.

Unfortunately, and I was genuinely surprised by my reaction, I find the music itself largely disappointing with little of the vigour or interest that characterises the two recorded symphonies. Still only ever heard the First Quartet - and frankly it sounds as though he did. The third and fourth were written after a period of study/consultation during which Still sought to embrace to atonal/serial concepts prevalent in the 1960s. The earlier pair of quartets are a strangely uneasy fusion of academic form and listless folksong influences. Listening to this well-filled, well recorded and solidly performed disc at a single sitting is a rather dispiriting experience. Too often, the music sounds like an academic exercise. I was rarely sure that Still was writing for string quartet as a specific genre or simply in four parts. The liner and website biography make the point that Still was a self-effacing man, I am not sure he wrote this music for public consumption.

Both of the early quartets veer between academic passages - strict fugues and conscientious imitative part-writing and oddly underwhelming folksy dances - the second movement of the First quartet Allegro giocondo and the jigging Allegro vivo of the Second quartet are cases in point. By chance, I have just recently reviewed the exceptional set of Franz Reizenstein's piano music on Lyrita. There is another composer of exactly the same period also fascinated by the same traditional forms. Where Reizenstein's Twelve Preludes and Fugues are a towering achievement proving just how much can still be created using 'limiting' forms; Still's music is simply not in the same league. The opening of the Second quartet occupies a similar territory to the Opus posth. Moeran E flat quartet without his melodic gift or joyful energy - Still's quartet writing keeps turning back in on itself. Characteristics do start to appear - there are a lot passages written in close imitation; one part plays a phrase and motif and this immediately is handed around the quartet. The greatest weakness is a sense of sameness - movements rarely achieve a satisfying musical or dramatic arc; they start, obey rules of exposition and development or some such and then stop - often rather abruptly.

The latter pair of quartets are of greater interest. If not strictly atonal they are written "without key" and as far as can be told post-date his work with Hans Keller. The homophony of the Third Quartet's opening is quite unlike his earlier fascination with contrapuntal writing. The Villiers Quartet play well - I do feel that their dynamic range and attack evens out some of the contrasting passages in these quartets - there is a certain serious greyness to this writing which could be ameliorated by a more overtly vibrant approach. By being rather studious and studied in their approach they are underlining the very characteristics that make this a rather dour listen.

The slow movements of the Third and Fourth quartets are impressively grim and haunted. They occupy a similar emotionally scarred landscape to Malcolm Arnold's Second Quartet's third movement Andante. That said, the Arnold gains in impact and emotional weight precisely because of its context and the music that surrounds it. Again, I have a very strong impression that Still is writing a series of movements exploring different aspects of a musical language he was trying to assimilate. To my ear this does not make for a satisfying coherent string quartet.

By some distance, I find the Fourth quartet to be the most completely impressive work. I am yet to be convinced by Still's over-use of imitative writing or the structure; the slow second and fourth movements nearly double the length of the faster first and third feels unbalanced. However the closing Angoscioso (anguished) does find a balance between Still's fascination for slow-moving part-writing and the emotional pain implicit in the movement's title. It reaches an impressive climax before falling back to just the two lower parts. A bare ambiguous dyad finishes the work abruptly.

The Naxos presentation is solidly good. Michael Ponder's engineering and production is its usual competent self. I came to this disc having recently reviewed sensational performances by the Escher and Enső quartets; alongside that company the Villiers Quartet do not have the tonal allure or big musical personality to match. As mentioned, I do have a sense that their care and concern to play these works has rather inhibited the actual music-making. Their measured and controlled approach works against rather than for the music - their biography points to their "explosive energy and stylistic refinement" - I hear little of the former on display here when more would have been very welcome.

I was fully expecting to be excited by this disc which is probably why my feelings of disappointment are all the more keenly felt.

Nick Barnard

Previous review: John France