The Bingham Quartet, based at the Royal Academy of Music in London, have a long and well-established reputation as exponents of new music; I have previously encountered them in recordings of Ginastera’s string quartets and the under-rated quartet by the Irish composer Norman Hay. Here we are presented with a collection of works for string quartet written by various British composers over the course of the last twenty years, although the composers are generally of what one might call the ‘upper middle generation’ of current writers, all of them aged over fifty.
Simon Speare’s Crowding in
was written in memory of the victims of the 1990s Balkan Wars, and as such it has a certain affinity with Michael Parkin’s Srebenica
performed by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales earlier this year and reviewed by myself
for Seen and Heard.
The album takes its title from Parkin’s Do not go gentle
featured here, presumably by coincidence. Given its subject matter, Crowding in
is a tense piece which clearly taxes the players to the utmost. Quartets playing modern music can often sound very edgy, but here they are utterly assured even in the highest-lying passages and those which in Yugoslav style make use of what the composer describes as “minute deviations in pitch”. It does not make for comfortable listening, but the sense of emotion and feeling is palpable. The end, as the music dies away in disjointed phrases, is most effective, although a longer pause after the conclusion might have been welcome.
By comparison Janet Owen Thomas’s Fiori musicali
is a series of six miniatures with a sense of a collection of variations on an initial theme. They do indeed form a linked unit, which Anthony Gilbert in his booklet note describes as a “rhythm of nature,” and the work is dedicated to Elizabeth Maconchy – whose string quartets have clearly provided an inspiration. Again one would have wished for a longer break at the end of the piece; as it is, the first movement of the quartet by David Stoll seems too much like a continuation of the series of shorter tracks.
Stoll’s quartet has the subtitle Fools by heavenly compulsion
, and as this suggests draws its inspiration from the imagery of King Lear.
Stoll has written music for the Royal Shakespeare Company, but it is not made clear whether the content of this quartet derives from incidental music for an actual production. The first movement, entitled Nothing
, is highly tonal in feel, although the following Storm
has more violent changes in mood as the title would suggest. It is not clear whether the theme at track 9, 5.51, with its echo in both rhythm and melodic outline of Britten’s phrase “A favour now for every fool” from Gloriana
, is deliberate, but it would not seem inappropriate. The finale, with the subtitle Never
, describes the death of Cordelia in graphic terms, a tragic threnody.
Michael Parkin’s Do not go gentle
is, as its title suggests, inspired by Dylan Thomas’s poem exhorting the reader to “rage, rage against the dying of light” – and the work is indeed a tribute to the composer’s father, killed in a gliding accident in 1985. The initial melody, presented by the viola, is extended and elaborated contrapuntally until it leads into a rapid and violent outburst of protest. The final section is an extended threnody introduced by a cadenza for the solo cello, and drifting away into ethereal heights. Again, this work could not be described as easy to listen to, but it has a sense of culminating passion and drive which is immediately compelling. Once again a longer pause at the end of the work would have been welcome; we are only given a mere five seconds of silence before the next track bursts in.
This is Anthony Gilbert’s Third Quartet
, employing a drone by Machaut as a sort of imitation hurdy-gurdy basis delivered at a breakneck speed. In his booklet note the composer describes the sound of the hurdy-gurdy as “raucous and buzzing”, and the same observation could be made of the writing here, with “a good deal of first-position writing for the violins”. The result is curiously folk-like in feeling, with the sense of a series of brief jigs delivered by a rustic band.
The second of these two discs is a special issue of Stoll’s Fourth Quartet
designed as an accompaniment to a retrospective exhibition of the ceramic work of Emmanuel Cooper (who died in 2012), copiously illustrated in the booklet. The composer contributes a booklet note explaining the connection between his music and the ceramics, complete with music examples. The links are far from clear to my ears, any more than in the current BBC series of programmes featuring composers drawing inspiration from the skylines of various British locations — Villa-Lobos did that sort of thing more effectively many years ago; but composers are at liberty to base their music on anything they like, as long as it works. It does work here. The music has a sort of hieratic beauty, the opening movement drifting over a gently oscillating ostinato in an impressionist style. The music describes the process of the “potting process” through creation, firing in the kiln and contemplation of the finished article.
These CDs are not currently listed on Archiv, but may be obtained from the company’s own website at the address shown in the header to this review; and I have also found the discs shown on the specialist site Proper Music as released on 23 June 2014.
Paul Corfield Godfrey