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Alec ROTH (b. 1948)
String Quartet No. 2 (2010) [19.05]
String Quartet No. 3, Autumnal (2013) [23.04]
String Quartet No. 4, On Malvern Hills (2013) [21.40]
Allegri Quartet
rec. 29 June - 1 July 2015, Pamoja Hall, Sevenoaks School, UK

Alec Roth’s website – not up to date, incidentally – gives access to parts of the score of his Second Quartet. At first sight, things are not very encouraging; virtually no sharps or flats. How, in the third millennium, can a composer write such resolutely tonal music without sounding hopelessly out of date? The answer is that a composer with as rich an aural imagination as Roth’s does not need to employ an extensive musical vocabulary.

The first movement, entitled “Waiting”, opens with pulsing harmonics, and one is not surprised to read that Roth was influenced by a U A Fanthorpe (1929-2009) poem that deals with clocks, time and the passage of time. The constant rhythmic and metric movement of this movement never lets up. There are hints – though no more than hints – of John Adams and Steve Reich. In his engaging booklet note, Roth describes the second movement as “a quirky dance”. Open strings, pizzicato effects and using the wood of the bow pervade the texture. It was in this movement, entitled “Dancing”, that I first began to feel the faint influence of Gaelic or Celtic folk music. A long, slowly moving melody in octaves over held pedal notes pervades the whole of the third movement, entitled “Singing”. A fair amount of dissonance is introduced here, most of it diatonic in nature. The fourth movement, a second “Dancing”, is based on a somewhat savage, two-note motif passed around the quartet but first heard on the cello. There is much open string writing, and this, with its bare fifths and fourths, again evokes Celtic music. This is highly vigorous music punctuated by a series of stops and starts. A new atmosphere, poignant and even slightly melancholy, is introduced in the finale, “Waiting (2)”, as pizzicato figures are heard over slowly moving, beautifully voiced harmonies in the lower strings. More pulsing, gentler now, and more drones, lead to the work’s slightly equivocal close in the instruments’ upper reaches.

The Third Quartet is quite a different work. It opens with a fingerboard snap and some harsh sawing, both of which inevitably evoke Bartók. This first movement, “Prelude”, is made up of a series of contrasted melodies played by each instrument, one after the other, sparsely accompanied or unaccompanied. Roth describes this movement as “fragmentary and unsettled”: the music wanders, apparently seeking something, then comes to an inconclusive stop. The opening of the second movement, “Serenade”, is more lyrical, and is based on the melody of a earlier song in which Roth set words by John Donne. A tango-like middle section provides some contrast, and it is a mark of the extensive stylistic features of these works that one passage, over a pizzicato accompaniment, had me thinking of Indian music. So far in the work the moto perpetuo and minimalist elements evident in the First Quartet have been absent, but now they appear in, and dominate, the third movement, entitled “Dance”. Listeners familiar with Steve Reich’s quartet Different Trains will feel at home here. The finale is a slow “Meditation” on some of the themes, or fragments of them, that were first heard at the outset. A pulsing figure closes the work, providing a link to the earlier quartet.

Whereas for the earlier quartets Roth provides a brief description of the music, for the Fourth he only explains its origins in a commission from the Malvern Concerts Club, whose only condition was that there should be some connection to Malvern. Roth asserts that the work is no way programmatic, and that its subtitle refers to the fact that he helped himself to themes by Elgar, “extensively transformed”. They are well hidden.

A lively, rhythmic figure and a rhetorical series of two chords form the basic material of the first movement. They are heard at the outset, and the composer proceeds to develop them, often simultaneously, in ingenious fashion. This movement is entitled “Fleeting”, whereas the second carries the title “Bright”. It begins like a continuation of the previous movement, but soon becomes a series of long-breathed, cantabile melodies over busy accompaniment figures, the whole, as so often in these works, punctuated by sudden, frequent silences. The opening theme of the third movement, “Dark”, is given to the unaccompanied cello, a rising series of major and minor seconds for those interested in such detail. From this rather unpromising material the composer creates a richly textured slow movement. The finale is perhaps the most remarkable movement of all thirteen. Its title, “Ambling”, suggests something insouciant and easy-going, and so it is. Its gently jazzy, syncopated themes, plus a recurring refrain of two chords are hardly evocative of ambling on the Malvern hills, but the whole creates a feeling of well-being in the listener, and the work’s delicious closing gesture might well, the first time you hear it, have you looking around wondering where it is coming from.

A word about the Allegri Quartet. The booklet tells us that, having celebrated its sixtieth anniversary in 2013, it is Britain’s oldest chamber group. Many collectors will remember it as the quartet that featured on the celebrated HMV LP “Barbirolli conducts English String Music”, with that wonderful session photograph on the cover (review review). The Allegri Quartet gave the first performances of all three of these quartets – the dates in the heading refer to those premieres – and sound utterly at home and assured.

Before acquiring this disc my acquaintance with the music of Alec Roth was limited to two short choral pieces (see also the Hyperion and Signum collections). I can now confirm that he has a new, unconditional, admirer. This music brings simple pleasure on a first hearing, and you then want to hear it again, immediately. Roth is in complete control of his material, and that, plus the constantly varied textures, ensure that the listener’s attention is captured at every moment. Furthermore, this is life-enhancing music that makes you smile. Each of these quartets deserves a regular hearing on the concert platform.

William Hedley



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