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Douglas LILBURN (1915-2001)
String Quartet in E minor (1946) [17:14]
Duos for 2 Violins (1954) [19:23]
String Trio (1945) [16:35]
Canzonettas for Violin and Viola (1942/43/58) [8:46]
Phantasy for String Quartet (1939) [10:43]
New Zealand String Quartet (Helene Pohl (violin 1), Douglas Beilman (violin 2), Gillian Ansell (viola), Rolf Gjelsten (cello))
rec. St. Anne's Church, Toronto, Canada, 26-28 July 2012
NAXOS 8.573079 [72:49]

This is a very valuable and impressive collection of all of Douglas Lilburn's Chamber Music for Strings. Inexplicably, Classical Music from New Zealand still struggles to be as well-known in the Northern Hemisphere as it deserves. Lilburn is a case in point; he is probably the most famous twentieth century New Zealand composer but even then "famous" is a rather relative term. Listening to any of his music from the three symphonies, several orchestral works and this disc here it is hard to understand why that should be given that they are all attractive works, displaying craft and instant appeal.

This is certainly true of all the music here the bulk of which was composed quite early in his career between 1939 and 1946. The exceptions are the impressive Duos of 1954 and the Third Canzonetta from 1958. Taking the works in order, the earliest - receiving its world premiere recording - is the 1939 Phantasy for String Quartet. This is a student piece written while Lilburn was in London studying with Vaughan Williams at the Royal College of Music. It's yet another work to be written as an entry for the annual Cobbett Prize. The remit was to write a single movement which was to be subdivided into clear sections of varying tempo and metre but often derived from the same melodic material. The original form sprang from the 'Fancy' which was a popular form of instrumental music in the late 16th and 17th centuries. Both here and in the three movement E Minor String Quartet Lilburn is very much interested in the sonority of writing for strings. What is relatively unusual about his Phantasy is not just the use of the early 'Fancy' form but of Jacobean melody too. His score is prefaced with the words of the ballad 'Westron Wynde' which provides the melodic basis of the work. Even the harmony has an archaic quality - I did wonder at a conscious or otherwise acknowledgement of Vaughan Williams' own Phantasy Quintet or even the Tallis Fantasia with the similar opening of sustained chords over a pizzicato bass. Certainly it is a very attractive work and one that receives - as do all the works presented here - a very sympathetic and sensitive performance from the members of the New Zealand String Quartet. For a young composer what impresses is the restraint yet the effectiveness of the writing. Likewise the transitions between the contrasting sections are fluent and seamless. I like Lilburn's handling of the metre and rhythm - he disguises barlines with real skill leaving the listener with a sense of unfolding lyrical lines unfettered by a predictable time signature. Somehow this encapsulates the free spirit of a Phantasy. According to the liner-note, aside from a first performance at the RCM at the time of its composition and a follow-up performance in New Zealand the work has been neglected. Certainly it does not deserve that fate and this recording is an excellent first step in its rehabilitation.

The Three Canzonettas for Violin and Viola is a composite work. It draws together three separate short works written as incidental music for productions of Shakespeare plays in Christchurch. As befits their origins and belying the song-like implications of the title these are altogether simpler but still effective pieces. The first is a simple song accompanied throughout by strummed/spread pizzicato chords. The gentle melancholy of the melody again harks back to an earlier an earlier age with playing that is very beautiful with pared dynamics and vibrato. No surprise Lilburn returned to the work and transcribed it also for solo piano and string orchestra. The lilting 5/8 second canzonetta is the shortest and again is delicately appealing. The final movement is in fact the latest work on the disc but it shares the spirit of the two preceding movements - the main difference being that the viola is given a greater share of the melodic interest whereas in the two earlier movements the lower instrument provides an accompaniment to the violin's 'song'. Technically this is the most demanding movement of the three with some tricky double-stopping for the violin. Emotionally this is also the most overtly expressive section but even here it is possible to hear it as music written to reinforce a scene rather than create an effect alone.

The 1945 String Trio is quite literally a bridge point between the lush sonorities Lilburn achieves with the four instruments of the two quartet works and the enforced austerity of the duet pieces. This might read like a foolishly obvious thing to write but there is a clear sense the Lilburn is exploring a leaner sound from his use of three instruments whereas in the quartets he is determined to create as warm a texture as possible. That being said he does ask the violin to double-stop quite extensively as if to create a second violin part. The most impressive sections are those where he makes a virtue out of the clarity 'just' three parts imposes on the work. Liner-note writer Robert Hoskins quotes Lilburn who says that he wrote this work whilst; "in a phase of Schubert-worship". The result is not any copying of Schubertian lyricism but instead - to quote Lilburn again - "a deliberate process of selection, of sorting out from the world's music those ways of expression that come closest to meeting one's own needs." In none of the works here does Lilburn feel the need to test the limits of the chosen forms to any expressive breaking point. Indeed, it might seem surprising given their genesis in a time of global upheaval just how emotionally detached they are. This is in no way to diminish their quality - simply to point out that they are all examples of absolute, abstract music. The central Allegretto of the Trio is a beautifully poised movement - here there is some of the spirit of Schubert in the grace of the writing which only in the central section is disturbed by an insistent rhythm in the cello. This soon falls away and returns to the opening elegiac mood. There is a Classical elegance about the closing Allegro as well. As throughout the work, Lilburn lays out the musical material with great clarity - even without a score and on early acquaintance it is possible to hear how he handles and develops the themes. Again, he avoids any emotional extreme, indeed the work ends in a rather throw-away manner.

The 1946 String Quartet in E minor is an interesting companion work to the Trio simply because Lilburn uses the one extra instrument to explore a very different expressive territory. The work opens with an Andante - although as in many of these works the initial tempo indication can be misleading since movements evolve and transmute through several tempo changes. In his orchestral works it is said that Sibelius can often be heard as a benign influence. With the exception of the E minor quartet I would say this is less true of the works presented here but this opening movement does contain echoes of the older composer's work. This should be heard as a compliment as again Lilburn handles his thematic development with real skill. This is probably the most overtly emotional work on the disc although again no narrative is suggested or supplied. The central Allegretto has a dancing opening although Lilburn moves quickly to material of a beautifully rhapsodic nature over a bass part that has a rhythmic reminiscence of the opening movement. At barely two and a half minutes long this section feels rather truncated. The closing allegro introduces a juddering rhythmic figure which determines the nature of the movement even when it tries to become - briefly - a stamping folkdance. This is the longest and most equivocal movement juxtaposing sections and instruments against each other within sections. It is almost as if Lilburn is having to decide which way the music should ultimately gravitate: the lyrical and sonorous or the jagged and energetic. Not wholly surprisingly the former wins and the quartet quietly subsides to a closing passage of open-chorded unity.

Throughout it is clear that Lilburn has a real mastery of part-writing and voicing. His work for strings is consistently effective and he achieves the tricky balance of creating a unified sound in which it is always possible to discern the individual instrumental voices. No doubt in this he is helped by the experienced production and engineering team of Norbert Kraft and Bonnie Silver in their favoured venue of St. Anne's Church Toronto. One little curio; the recording sessions for this disc took place two days before the sessions for the Enső Quartet's recording of Strauss and Verdi in the same venue. To my ear it sounds as if the New Zealand Quartet have favoured a slightly closer microphone placement giving the sound a fraction more edge and immediacy. Certainly the New Zealand Quartet do not make as 'sweet' or as refined a sound as the Enső Quartet but it could be argued that this is as much a function of the repertoire as anything else. Personally I prefer the extra little bit of air afforded the earlier session but this is still an expertly produced disc.

Turning to the final work - the Duos for 2 Violins of 1954. In many ways I find this the most impressive of all. Hoskins describes this work as being in Lilburn's Modernist style. If so I would have to say it is not very modernist and I feel such labels can sometimes hinder as much as inform. What strikes me is how successfully Lilburn surmounts the issue of writing effectively for two 'treble' instruments. He avoids any sense of lead and accompaniment parts, writing instead as a dialogue of equal partners. Likewise he achieves a wide expressive range across the six sections from the powerfully sparse Largo of No.5 to the duelling-fiddles of No.2 Allegro. Everything about this set is well-judged with three faster movements balanced by three slower. The twentieth century repertoire for two violins is not over-filled with music of this quality which also remains in the realm of appealing and eminently playable. Which makes the fact that this is not published all the more surprising. Violinists Helene Pohl and Douglas Beilman give the work a thoroughly compelling performance. Although not highly virtuosic there are still enough demands to require skilful playing - which it receives here allied to a well-judged tonal and expressive range.

The liner by Robert Hoskins is brief but informative and in English only. He does indulge in some rather 'poetic' imagery for the music which underlines his passion for the music but I am not sure is always anything except rather florid: "... the swooping gesture prematurely plunges like a beaked lance". Reliable engineering and production together with a good playing time completes a fine package. With the exception of the Violin Duos I suspect I will return to Lilburn's orchestral works more often than the music presented here but that being said all of the music is well worth hearing especially in performances as convincing as these. A useful addition to the discography of a still under-appreciated composer.

Nick Barnard