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The English Phantasy
Frank BRIDGE (1879-1941)
Phantasie for string quartet (1905) [11:11]
Gustav HOLST (1878-1934)
Phantasy on British Folksongs, Op.36 (1916) [10:29]
Eugene GOOSSENS (1893-1962)
Phantasy Quartet for strings, Op.12 (1915) [11:23]
Herbert HOWELLS (1892-1983)
Phantasy String Quartet, Op.25 (1917) [12:43]
Joseph HOLBROOKE (1878-1958)
First Quartet Fantasie in D minor, Op.17b (1906) [14:59]
William HURLSTONE (1876-1906)
Phantasie for string quartet (1905) [8:36]
The Bridge Quartet
rec. May 2014, St George’s Church, Chesterton, UK

The vogue for British Phantasy (or Phantasie, or Fantasie) chamber music was inspired by WW Cobbett (1847-1937), whose competition was inaugurated in 1906. It soon became a furnace for industrious composers and executant-composers, who produced something of a torrent of compact, single-movement pieces, hoping to win the prestigious prizes and the financial rewards that went with them. Six composers are represented in this release and three of the works are making their premiere appearance on disc – those by Holst, Goossens, and Hurlstone. British music collectors will be especially attracted by these three, so let’s begin there.

Holst’s Phantasy on British Folksongs, Op.36 was composed in 1916 and premiered the following year by members of the John Saunders Quartet – Saunders being one of the great servants of British chamber music of the time. But in 1919 Holst withdrew the work claiming it was his ‘guilty secret’. Well, that’s as may be, because this edition, prepared by Roderick Swanston, sounds perfectly fine and the tunes, of which there are four, offer easy-going charm as well as much playfulness and warmth. Eugene Goossens knew the quartet repertoire from the inside as he was second fiddle in the Philharmonic Quartet when he wrote his 1915 Phantasy Quartet, his Op.2. It was dedicated to his ensemble’s friendly rivals, the London String Quartet. There’s much deft flexibility in a work that reveals the French influence on Goossens’s writing very clearly. Debussy and Lekeu were two pervasive influences on a number of Franco-Belgian-orientated British composers of the time but Goossens also admits more frankly folkloric material as well, to balance the evocative tremolandi and pizzicati passages. William Hurlstone’s Phantasie for string quartet was completed in 1905, the year before his untimely death at the age of 30. At eight-and-a-half minutes this is the shortest of the sextet of works and the most backward-looking. With the Bridge it’s also the earliest. Hurlstone tends to be comprehensively Brahmsed critically-speaking but there’s a droll quality to some of the writing which is very attractive and the soloistic moments, and the fast folklore, are equally persuasive. In the relative modernity to be heard here, Hurlstone shouldn’t be overlooked.

Bridge’s 1905 Fantasie is quite well-known and its opening march theme always hits the mark. The Bridge Quartet play the andante con moto section warmly but their near-namesakes the London Bridge Ensemble (Dutton CDLX7254, an all-Bridge disc), though a touch slower, offer a more rounded performance. Best of all is the Maggini (Naxos 8.553718, another all-Bridge disc) which is full of subtlety in tone and transitions. The Bridge Quartet sounds rather bluff in comparison, not helped by a recording that tends to over-project their corporate sound. Herbert Howells’s Phantasy String Quartet richly enshrines echoes of VW’s Tallis fantasia in its more resonant moments, and the slower sections work well in this performance. Some of the higher lying writing can sound a touch uneasy and ensemble is not always quite watertight. I recall the performance of the Richards Ensemble on Lyrita, with Nona Liddell leading and VW’s beloved Jean Stewart the violist, with great affection.

Finally to Holbrooke, and his sonorous and trickily-titled First Quartet Fantasie in D minor, Op.17b. It’s good to hear this committed performance but in all honesty it can’t match the Rasumovsky Quartet on their all-Holbrooke disc (Dutton CDLX7124), who are altogether more trenchant and with a far greater variegation of colour. Also there is no billowing echo after the opening unison to remind one of the church acoustic. This is certainly not a bad performance and newcomers will enjoy the fugato-feints, the fanfares, the lonesome folk solos, and the air of playfulness embedded in this work.

The booklet notes are comprehensive and from various writers. I’m not one to carp when notes are so good but I wish EMR didn’t have the habit of separating the composers’ biographies from the notes on their music; it creates a dual sequence which necessitates a lot of flicking backwards and forwards. Minor gripe.

The previously unrecorded pieces make this a very worthwhile acquisition for British chamber music mavens. Being greedy I want another volume that will include a nucleus of Cobbett-inspired works written by members of the London Quartet – Harry Waldo Warner and Albert Sammons, both of whom wrote prize-winning quartets. The Sammons Quartet has been resurrected by American and British ensembles in concert recently, but I don’t know if anyone has essayed Warner’s works, which were quite popular in the 1920s. Let’s go for it.

Jonathan Woolf