Over the last few years Christopher Wright's discography has expanded considerably. Now this recent release adds substantially to the scope for assessing the composer's progress over nearly forty years of composing activity. The quartets also show how his music has developed over these years.
The First String Quartet was written as a response to Wright having studied Bartók's quartets – especially the fourth and fifth. The composer also admits that “the writing is the closest I have come to composing in a purely atonal (or more accurately dodecaphonic) musical language”. One may certainly feel that this assertion contains more than a grain of truth but it is also quite apparent that even at that stage in his career Wright was a lyricist at heart. This can be clearly discerned in the beautiful second movement. The First String Quartet is in three movements along the fairly traditional fast-slow-fast pattern. The first movement opens in rarefied atmosphere (Lento e tranquillo). The music then opens up into an animated section (Agitato) alternating tranquil and agitated episodes. The second movement is mostly lyrical. It opens with a long solo for cello followed by a set of three variations. The third movement resumes the nervous mood of the first movement. A “sardonic valse”, as the composer has it, briefly interrupts the music's flow. This short episode may hint at a similar episode in Bartók's Fifth String Quartet. A brief reference to the opening leads to a final, rather abrupt coda.
Composed some fifteen years later, the Second String Quartet is also in three movements. The opening Allegretto may briefly bring Shostakovich to mind and it is followed by a more energetic section. Again, the slow movement is the emotional heart of the work: a beautiful theme played by the viola, underpinned by cello pizzicati and “sighing” violins unfolds in a sometimes troubled mood. The energy of much of the third movement tends to dispel the unease and the tension of the preceding movement although the mood remains ultimately ambiguous until the final coda.
Like its predecessors, the Third String Quartet is also in three movements although they reveal a different internal structure. Another characteristic this piece shares with its predecessors is the fact that the music is developed from basic elements heard at the outset. The first two movements are linked as one, “contradicting each other in style, mood and speed”. Once again, the beautiful slow movement is the emotional core of the entire work. The final movement is relatively lighter in mood, including a “catchy tune”. The joyous music pauses briefly with some reference to earlier material before the final coda.
Unlike the three earlier works, the Fourth String Quartet, composed for and first performed by the Fejes Quartet, is in four movements and is the only one to have a subtitle that might suggest a subliminal programme. The subtitle (“Beacon Fell”) refers to a place near the Pendle range of hills in Lancashire that the composer has visited over many years. Another difference is that the movements are no longer thematically interrelated as in the earlier quartets and have thus a greater independence in mood and style. “The music both describes and represents personal and seasonal change encountered over this time.” This said, I firmly believe that the music in this very fine work is as abstract as in the earlier string quartets. Incidentally the composer also mentions that the First String Quartet was inspired by the East Suffolk Coast.
These performances were recorded in presence of the composer which – I think – lends an authenticity to the Fejes Quartet's committed and carefully prepared readings caught in a very fine recording. Incidentally the personnel of the Fejes are members of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra.
Although some of his early music, as in the First String Quartet, may be influenced by modern trends, it was never overtly radical as such. As I said earlier in this review, I believe that Christopher Wright is first and foremost a lyrical composer as fully demonstrated by the emphasis he puts on the slow movements. This beautifully crafted music is immensely rewarding to listen to and to absorb.