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Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Piano Quintet in A minor op. 84 (1918) [36:02]
Anthony PAYNE (b. 1936)
Piano Quartet (2015) [17:01]
York BOWEN (1884-1961)
Phantasy Quintet for bass clarinet and strings op. 93 (1932-36) [13:46]
Josef HOLBROOKE (1878-1958)
Ballade for bass clarinet and piano (1908? publ. 1950) [6:42]
Primrose Piano Quartet (John Thwaites (piano); Susanne Stanzeleit (violin), Dorothea Vogel (viola), Andrew Fuller (cello))
Ronald Woodley (bass clarinet)
Daniel Roberts (violin)
rec. 16-18 Sept 2015. Adrian Boult Hall, Birmingham Conservatoire. DDD
MERIDIAN CDE84640 [73:31]

The Primrose Piano Quartet have for quite a few years now been regulars with the almost self-effacing Meridian label. Although the Primrose cast their nets far wider they are particularly associated with British music. I would just cite two of their Meridian discs: CDE84547 (review review) and CDE 84519. The line-up has changed but the players' empathy with this wide-ranging genre has not.

What strikes me instantly about the Elgar is how attentive the Primrose are to the many nuances of dynamic and tempo in this score and the others. On the down-side their sound is not quite as sumptuous as I was expecting; warm yes - as in the Adagio - but not golden-toned. They give a totally committed and vivid performance that is impassioned and unreserved.

Anthony Payne is a keen Elgarian, witness his orchestral Half heard in the stillness heard recently with the BBCPO at Salford Quays; not to mention his realisations of the Third Symphony and Pomp and Circumstance No. 6. I heard Payne's intricately emotional single-movement Piano Quartet at its premiere in Birmingham. As I wrote then it's a compact work of Bergian concentration. If you crave English parallels then Bridge's String Quartets 3 and 4 will serve. Glimmering and sometimes ruthlessly active strings are clearly delineated against the piano's glinting staccato. The music simmers to a frankly lyrical yet understated climax in the last few pages. It feels very personal – even autobiographical – and is by no means facile. It promises well and is one of those works that needs multiple hearings over an extended period. This is exactly what this recording makes possible.

We end with two works for bass clarinet. The Bowen has had three recordings before this and all are differently coupled so comparison is awkward. There is a recording from the British Music Society - a very fine and generous all-Bowen disc which also includes the Second and Third String Quartets. This was reissued by Naxos in 2014. There is a more obscure Phaedra CD where the Quintet can be found in the company of a wide miscellany of other works for the bass clarinet. Add to this a recording made by the Riverdale Ensemble alongside works by Ireland and Holbrooke. It's part of an album entitled Twelve by the Moon Dial on Chestnut Hall Music CHM080930. Bowen's compact Phantasy Quintet was written for the clarinetist and saxophonist Walter Lear for whom Holbrooke wrote his own Saxophone Concerto in the 1920s. It's another single-movement span. Its 'phantasy' tag is significant. The music proceeds in an instinctive rhapsodic way with dues paid to romance, witchery and lyricism. Bowen has been spoken of as "The English Rachmaninov" but in this case the music charts an almost impressionistic course over which Ronald Woodley's bass clarinet richly sings. This is a very satisfying account which settles into a warming epilogue. Holbrooke liked the title Ballade. There is a series of four Welsh ballades for piano as well as quite a few other things. This little Ballade is reserved yet romantic and a little melancholy; a lovely little piece with a memorable melody. I am very grateful to the soloist here - Ronald Woodley for sending me a copy of the score which shows that it is written for cor anglais or bass clarinet or bassoon or horn in F. I can imagine this piece working just as well in its edition for French horn. It seems from Mr Woodley's notes that it is based on the first movement of Holbrooke's Piano Concerto No. 1 The Song of Gwyn-ap-Nudd recorded on Hyperion.

I had the pleasure of hearing these same artists in all these pieces but the Elgar at last year's Birmingham Conservatoire British Piano Festival (review ~ review).

The liner notes are by Gareth Thomas, John Thwaites and Ronald Woodley. The project was carried through with the aid of funding from the Birmingham Conservatoire, Birmingham City University.

An indispensable and contrasting addition to the British music discography.

Rob Barnett



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