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Frederick DELIUS (1862-1934)
String Quartet in E minor (1917) [27.21]
Two movements from original three-movement version of String Quartet (1916) reassembled by Daniel M. Grimley (2016) [16.10]
Sir Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
String Quartet in E minor (1918) [27.54]
Villiers Quartet
rec. July/October 2016 St. Silas Church, Pentonville, London
NAXOS 8.573586 [71.24]

The coupling of the two ‘only’ string quartets - both in E minor, written just two years apart - by Elgar and Delius is as logical as it is surprisingly rare. In fact, in relatively recent times seemingly only the Brodsky Quartet on ASV offered the same coupling. Individually, both quartets have been recorded reasonably often although the catalogue does not exactly groan with very recent versions of either. So this new disc is very welcome especially since it features the USP of the World Premiere recordings of Delius’ first thoughts for the first two movements of his quartet. For the inclusion of these fascinating and substantially different versions of the familiar published sections this disc will be a mandatory purchase for all admirers of Delius and British 20th Century string quartets.

The performers here are the Villiers Quartet who seem to have taken over the mantle of the Naxos 'resident' artists for this repertoire from the ever-excellent Maggini Quartet. The recent death of the Maggini’s 2nd violin, David Angel, marks the sad end of that particular era. Personally speaking, fine though the Villiers are, both as individual players and collectively I prefer the Maggini's playing - very broadly speaking they produced a more sonorous, richer and to my ear more expressive tone. The Maggini’s Elgar quartet - recorded for Naxos and coupled with a thrillingly dynamic version of the Piano Quintet with the great Peter Donohoe - is a more impressive traversal of this complex work. The generalisation that somehow Elgar was retreating into withdrawn country idyll is quite mistaken. All three of the late great chamber works are ‘big’ both in scale and emotional intent. Do not get me wrong, the Villiers are very good here - more at home with the emotional certainties of Elgar than the elusive Delius in fact. But ultimately I find the journey the Maggini’s tread to be more compelling both in the passing details and the greater overall span.

My introduction to the three Elgar chamber works was via the HMV gatefold 2 LP set featuring Hugh Bean and his Music Group of London in the Sonata and Quartet and the Allegri Quartet partnering John Ogdon in the Piano Quintet. Whether it is a case of “first love” I cannot say but the Music Group of London’s performance of the quartet - led by Bean is quite superb. Bean’s Elgar has always been amongst my most favourite; he had such an intuitively perfect understanding of Elgarian ebb and flow, his vibrato is a little tighter, more neurotic than is common today. Again, I find that chimes perfectly with the spirit of the work. Comparing timings with the new recording gives little away, the Villiers are twenty seconds or so faster in each movement. But that assumes a linear, start to end, progression - Elgar demands greater fluidity around a basic tempo than many other composers and the difficulty for performers is to make the transitions feel inevitable and organic. Anyone coming new to the work will not be disappointed at all with the Villiers’ approach - but both the Magginis and Hugh Bean’s team are even more impressive. The Magginis are more impulsive than the Villiers - and much more so than Hugh Bean - especially in the opening Allegro Moderato. Another fine and compelling version of this work came coupled with Bax’s 1st Quartet played by the Pav„o Quartet - against any of these groups try the very opening of the work; I find the Villiers just a tad literal, lacking the emotional catch in the throat I want.

The central Poco Andante Piacevole - using the term that hearkens back to the early String Serenade - is a minor miracle of sustained lyrical writing and again well played by all groups. The Villiers' leader James Dickenson does not have as sweet a tone as Hugh Bean or Kerenza Peacock for the Pav„os. Some may prefer his plainer, less overtly expressive approach - I appreciate the skill level but prefer the other style more.

Turning to the Delius - the two ‘new’ movements are revelatory and very valuable additions to the catalogue. In fact I would go a far as to say that I probably prefer the original versions to the ‘standard’ published revisions. But for me this remains a curious and frustrating piece to listen to. Written in 1916 this was Delius in full flood. The work was produced in the middle of a creative burst of 8 or so years from 1912 to 1920 that included Song of the High Hills, Two Pieces for Small orchestra (including On hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring ), the masterly North Country Sketches, the fine but still under-appreciated Requiem, the 3 string concerti for the Harrison sisters, Eventyr and A Song before Sunrise to name just the major works. Yet the quartet remains curiously lacking in the magic that from base metal on the printed page produces aural gold. For many listeners I would suspect that this work would underline all the shortcomings of Delian composition. Where the Elgar is a riot of contrapuntal writing and skilled string voicing, the Delius quartet remains resolutely homophonic. In part I think the relatively close slightly dry recording engineered and produced by Michael Whight works against the music. A comparison here with the Bridge String Quartet’s recording on Meridian is telling. The Bridge are noticeably set further back into a warm acoustic so by the time the music reaches the listener's ear it has blended and been ‘warmed’ in a way that the rather analytical new Naxos version does not permit. Not that it helps that Delius writes some annoyingly unsympathetic double-stopped octaves for the leader that no performance sounds wholly comfortable with. Interestingly, Martin Lee-Browne and Paul Guinery in their 2014 Delius and his Music quote a letter from Delius to Phillip Heseltine (Peter Warlock) remarking that this was perhaps an error - too right! Curious that a composer of his experience - by 1916 - could be making such poor decisions. Eric Fenby in his famed Delius as I knew him relates an evening in a bar(!) with Heseltine studying the score of the quartet; “Heseltine, suddenly exasperated, threw the score down on the table in utter disgust and declared in a loud voice that Fred could not write for strings. If only he had Elgar’s cunning in this respect”. The Bridge couple their recording with the apt choices of quartets by Delius’ great friends Grieg and Grainger. I do not know other versions by the superb Britten Quartet, Fitzwilliam Quartet, or the previously mentioned Brodsky’s but I would recommend this Bridge recital as very rewarding.

Eric Fenby excerpted the third movement of the quartet - which gives the work its subtitle of ‘Late Swallows" - and arranged it for string orchestra. It is hard not to hear this movement as the most completely satisfying section of the work. There is an obsessive repeating figuration that suddenly makes a virtue out of the textural monotony of the scoring that elsewhere seems to limit the work. The Villiers are very held and reflective in this movement - to good effect - although again the extra warmth of the Bridge’s recording environment helps them create an even more gently ecstatic mood. After this movement which is top-drawer Delius the closing Very Quick and Vigorously returns to what Delius does least well - trying to write music of extended dynamism. What this music does not sound is very quick and vigorous and in no way is that the failing of the players here or on any recording. Delius seems to try and inject a kind folksy bonhomie into the work as if it ought to finish energetically. So, for me, this is a work I want to like a lot more than I do, simply because I love so much else of Delius' music.

So, solid performances of both main works from the Villiers Quartet but in neither do they come close to displacing previously favoured versions. That said, the addition of the two first versions of the Delius Quartet make this uniquely valuable. A good but not great recording technically complimented by a very useful note from the editor of the 'new' Delius movements Daniel Grimley.

Nick Barnard

Previous reviews: John France ~ Michael Cookson



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