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Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
String Quartet (1918) (arr. for strings by David Matthews) [26.46]
Sir Malcolm ARNOLD (1921-2006)
Sonata for Strings (1975) (arr. by David Matthews after the String Quartet No. 2) [26.59]
Robert SIMPSON (1921-1997)
Allegro Deciso
from String Quartet No. 3 (1953-54) (arr. for strings by the composer) [12.00]
Orchestra of St. Paul’s/Ben Palmer
rec. St Mary’s Church, Walthamstow, London, 24-25 March 2014
SOMM SOMMCD0145 [66.15]

First I offer an explanation of the augmentations from quartet to 16-piece string orchestra. This should enable a better appreciation of David Matthews’s arrangements.

The notes for this album were written by the recording’s conductor, Ben Palmer, who comments on the composition and arrangement of the Orchestra of St Paul’s for these sessions. He writes that meticulous attention was paid in an effort to maintain the balance of a string quartet with four each of the first and second violins, three each of violas and cellos and two double basses. These were seated to the left and right of the conductor — Elgar would have been familiar with such a plan — and this layout was thought suitable for all three works on this disc.

I chose to use a celebrated recording of Elgar’s String Quartet as a comparator - that made by the Stratton String Quartet on 20 December 1933, an early pressing of which was intended for the critically ill composer as a Christmas present. The performance is available on Dutton Laboratories CDLX 7004 and also includes Elgar’s Piano Quintet, again with the Stratton players and Harriet Cohen; the latter recorded about two months earlier. It is interesting to compare the timings of each of the three movements of the Stratton and St Paul’s recordings:-

Stratton: Allegro moderato 8.31; Piacevole 8.09; Allegro molto 7.46
St Paul’s: Allegro moderato 8.44; Piacevole 9.30; Allegro molto 8.32

There are obviously significant differences especially in the Piacevole. One might argue that the weight of instrumentation and the resultant tonal complexities might require more space and time and that Matthews’ added subtleties and nuances deserve slower tempos but this reviewer is not entirely convinced. Matthews’ opening Allegro moderato arrangement most closely resembles the Stratton reading and is nice and airy capturing the essential Elgarian sound well. The Piacevole though is much slower - nearly 1˝ minutes so. The music droops considerably around four minutes in; and although there is emotional drive in crescendo, the impact of Elgar’s original is diminished. Nearly a minute separates the two recordings of the concluding Allegro molto too. The Strattons are much more lively. The Matthews version is hardly racy and sounds deliberate in comparison with loss of spontaneity and élan.

I will confess that I am unfamiliar with Malcolm Arnold’s four-movement String Quartet No. 2, written in Dublin in 1975 a time of great turbulence in his life. It shows in the music. Previously he had lived through a period of depression, worsening dependence on alcohol and the break-up of his first marriage; his short second marriage to an Irish woman was to fail just two years after the composition of this String Quartet. It was hoped that this Matthews’ arrangement, recast as a Sonata for Strings, would introduce the original quartet to a wider audience. I rather think many would have been deterred by the bleak, tragic despairing mood of much of the material although there are moments of beauty and some appealing melody. The opening Allegro is violent and austere as though some runaway train is about to leave the tracks but then a small light shows through as a heartfelt blues melody enters. The scherzo begins with a wretched cadenza for solo violin with sour glissandi before a more cheerful Irish reel takes over. Its energy is threatened by sardonic utterances in the lower strings. The Andante movement opens despairingly too before quivering material lightens the atmosphere somewhat to introduce a lovely chorale built up firstly in whispers and secondly in more impassioned tones. Arnold’s final Allegretto is lighter in character with an attractive long-breathed melody. Not an easy, comforting work to appreciate this but worth more than an initial hearing.

Finally there is Robert Simpson’s shorter Allegro Deciso which he himself arranged for string orchestra from his own String Quartet No. 3. His Third Quartet is unusual in that it is cast in just two movements: a sorrowful Adagio and an energetic second movement. This is an intricate exercise in complex contrapuntal writing which encompasses varying moods with material not far from Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho shower music, to bell-like tolling and lyrical episodes.

Recorded sound engineered by the very experienced Ben Connellan is very good; clear and crisp with excellent perspectives. Ben Palmer’s notes, spread over six pages of the album booklet are succinct, lucid and informative. By the way Ben’s knowledge and enthusiasm for English music is further proved by the inclusion, in the April 2015 edition of the Elgar Society Journal, of his enlightening article, The Sound of Elgar’s Orchestra – a study of early twentieth century orchestral performance practice.

The Elgar augmentation is fascinating if not entirely convincing and even though much of the rest of music here is uncomfortable this is a collection well worth considering.

Ian Lace



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