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Peter Racine FRICKER (1920-1990)
String Quartet No. 1, Op. 8 (1948-49) [15:16]
String Quartet No. 2, Op. 20 (1952-53) [23:08]
String Quartet No. 3, Op. 73 (1976) [22:22]
Adagio and Scherzo (1943) [9:38]
Villiers Quartet (James Dickenson (violin I); Tamaki Higashi (violin II); Carmen Flores (viola); Nicholas Stringfellow (cello))
rec. Church of St John the Evangelist, Upper Norwood, London, 15-16 October 2015 (1), 16 July 2016 (2; Adagio and Scherzo), 6 January 2016 (3)
World premičre recordings except Quartet 2
NAXOS 8.571374 [70:23]

My eager anticipation to review this release was twofold. Firstly, I don’t know Fricker’s music at all, and am always eager to explore a new path. Secondly, a couple of years ago, I bought the Naxos release of the Robert Still String Quartets, and was greatly impressed by the Villiers Quartet’s performances.

Fricker was born in London in 1920, and his earliest musical interests, whilst still a student at St. Paul’s School, were in organ performance. He had received tuition in the instrument from Henry Wilson and Ralph Downes. In 1937 he entered the Royal College of Music, where he studied with R.O. Morris (composition) and Ernest Bullock (organ). After a spell in the army during the War, he began a period of study with Mátyás Seiber. He later held teaching posts at Morley College, where he succeeded Michael Tippett, and a professorship in composition at the RCM. In 1964, he spread his wings with a peripatetic post at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he died in 1990.

The String Quartet No. 1 is designated as Op. 8. It was written between July and November 1948, and premiered in London in September 1949. A month later the Amadeus Quartet performed it, and subsequently took it on a European tour. It’s a single-movement work, divided into seven recognizable sections, and bearing a dedication to Mátyás Seiber. Although it was submitted for the Edwin Evans Prize, it lost out to Elizabeth Maconchy’s String Quartet No. 5. Fricker was, however, given an honourable mention. The Quartet hovers of the fringes of tonality. The Villiers Quartet have full measure of its undulating narrative, fully taking into account the contrasting moods of calm sobriety and urgent intensity.

The Amadeus Quartet commissioned the composer to write another quartet in 1952. It was completed in April 1953, and the Amadeus later recorded it. It’s set in three movements. The first is intensely dramatic and forward moving, never seeming to find peace. Yet there are moments of ardent lyricism. Then there’s a Scherzo, sprightly and buoyant with a more subdued central section. The Adagio permeates much darker recesses. It’s meditative, with a wistful glance over its shoulder, and achieves a powerful climax about 4 minutes in.

Although the Second Quartet garnered a certain amount of success, twenty-three years were to elapse before Fricker set to work on his third venture into the medium. He had heard Elliott Carter’s Third String Quartet, and this fired up his creativity. He dedicated the result to Carter ‘in admiration’. It had a lengthy gestation and reached completion in 1976. It’s scored in five movements and displays compositional flair, ingenuity and invention. At its emotional centre is an Adagio. The last movement is a Presto with eight variations. Finely constructed, its atonal leanings and tortuous narrative make for a challenging experience. The work didn’t receive a performance until the 1984 Cheltenham Festival, when it was premiered by the Chilingirian Quartet.

The earliest work here is the Adagio and Scherzo from 1943. The two movements were probably originally intended as the central movements of a fully-fledged quartet. They constitute the most accessible music on the disc. The Adagio is dark and somber, while the Scherzo is jaunty and has a Bartókian flavour.

This first complete recorded cycle has been made available thanks to the British Music Society Charitable Trust as part of the Michael Hurd Bequest. Naxos’ warm recording is first-class, and Christopher Husted’s excellent annotations are comprehensive. For the adventurous and discerning listener, there’s much to enjoy here. These quartets have found their true advocates in the Villiers Quartet, who surmount every challenge with consummate mastery and committed musicianship.
Stephen Greenbank

Previous reviews: Rob Barnett ~ John France



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