EM Records has already enriched the catalogue with several recordings of neglected English music. Here we have more reasons to be grateful to them with the release of first recordings of two early but nonetheless significant chamber works by Parry.
The very survival of his Third String Quartet is rather remarkable. It was given a first performance in 1880 at which it seems to have been received rather coolly. After that, however, it fell into total neglect - it was never published and it doesn’t appear that there were any subsequent performances - and the manuscript was lost. It came to light as recently as 1992 when it was discovered among the papers of Gerald Finzi. A performing edition was made three years later, which paved the way for some performances and now for this first recording.
Now that we have a chance to hear the work we must be thankful for its survival: it contains too much good music to lose forever. The first movement seems to me to be very well constructed and it makes for very pleasant listening. Michael Allis points out in his very detailed notes that Parry, always ready to try something new, was not conventional in his design of the music. The Andante
second movement was the most warmly received at the première and that’s perhaps understandable. The movement is mainly relaxed and lyrical though there’s a slightly more turbulent central section. Parry described the following movement as ‘A death’s head scherzo with gleams of hope in it’. The gleams of hope can be found in the trio where there’s some relaxation but the outer sections of the movement are full of biting, driving rhythms. I can imagine that the contemporary audience may have found it aggressive and unsettling - not quite what was expected in the civilised discourse of late-Victorian chamber music! The finale is substantial and inventive with a number of unexpected changes of tack along the way. It’s played with fine spirit by the Bridge Quartet. In fact these payers make a very positive case for the work as a whole and they play it with freshness and great commitment. I would, perhaps, have welcomed a bit more warmth and sweetness to their tone which strikes me as a touch edgy at times but not to any extent that limits enjoyment.
The String Quintet is a later work and Michael Allis thinks that it may have been inspired by a performance of the Brahms Quintet in F major, op. 88 which Parry heard in 1883. Unlike the Third Quartet Parry’s Quintet did not fall into oblivion after its première in 1884. He revised it twice and it was published in 1909. I don’t know if it’s enjoyed a significant performance history since then - I rather doubt it - but this is its first recording.
As a listener I find that I am drawn much more towards a string quintet than to a quartet; I prefer the richer sonorities of five stringed instruments as opposed to four. I wonder if Parry had similar feelings; it appears to me that the expanded medium called forth more from him. The first movement of his Quintet is expansive but energetic also. The music moves forward with no little purpose; it’s excellent stuff. The second movement is a vigorous scherzo with a more easeful trio. Michael Allis considers that the Andante sostenuto
is perhaps ‘the gem’ of the work: I agree. It’s a richly textured lyrical movement and I found that I both enjoyed and respected the music. Parry rounds things off with an impressive Vivace
finale. This is rondo-like in structure and it makes for a fine, open-hearted end to the work. Michael Allis sums up the Quintet as ‘a cleverly-conceived and sonorous contribution to British chamber music at the turn of the twentieth century.’ That verdict seems to me to be spot-on.
The more of Parry’s music that I get to hear the more I admire him as a composer - and I also admire enormously his contribution to British musical life during his lifetime as a teacher, enabler and general force for musical good. The very welcome appearance of these two chamber works on disc gives us a further opportunity to evaluate his output.
The Bridge Quartet, admirably reinforced by Robert Gibbs in the Quintet, are splendid advocates of this music. The recording, by one of EM Records’ regular engineers, Richard Bland, is very clear and present. This is a highly desirable release.
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