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Albion Refracted
Frank BRIDGE (1879-1941)
Three Idylls (1906) [15:14]
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Three Divertimenti (1933) [10:53]
Joseph PHIBBS (b. 1974)
String Quartet No. 1 (2014) [22:30]
Mark Anthony TURNAGE (b. 1960)
Twisted Blues with Twisted Ballad (2008) [22:37]
Piatti Quartet
rec. 2017/18, The Music Room, Champs Hill, UK

Whilst the first two works on this disc need little or no introduction, the third and fourth works both receive their premiere recording here, and whilst I know some of the music of Mark Anthony Turnage, the name Joseph Phibbs is, I must admit, new to me. This is an enterprising disc, one that presents English music for string quartet spanning some one hundred and eight years, and which takes in the music of arguably the greatest rock band, Led Zeppelin, on the way.

The earliest music on this disc is Frank Bridge’s Three Idylls, the second of which is the most famous due to Benjamin Britten using it as a base for his Variations on a theme of Frank Bridge. Bridge actually composed a fair bit of music for string quartet including the four numbered quartets, each with a different exposition and development of Bridge’s personal style, from Brahms, through Stravinsky to Berg; whilst the music can be by no one else, these influences are there, and in the case of Alban Berg, he passed on his fondness to his pupil Benjamin Britten. Then there are the handful of short pieces largely based upon traditional folk tunes such as Sir Rodger de Coverly, with the Three Idylls for String Quartet recorded here belonging to the group of works that include the Phantasie Quartet and the Three Novelletten, three works which in a way can be described as short quartets. The first of the Idylls is twice as long as the next longest and opens with a slow meditative theme, before developing into more animated music. The second Idyll has become Frank Bridge’s most often performed work, partly due to its use by Britten, but also due to its hint of a slow waltz and its harmonic ambiguities and the way it points to the lyricism of Alban Berg. The final piece is the most jolly and lively recalls Bridge’s fondness for the Debussy String Quartet, a work he had long admired, but there are also Elgarian touches here especially in the lyrical second theme.

The Three Divertimenti for String Quartet by Benjamin Britten could be described as character pieces, with music that is tonal, yet certainly of the twentieth century, with allusions to his teacher Bridge, and also Stravinsky and Bartók. Originally intended to be a five-movement suite, the opening Divertimento is entitled ‘March’ and begins with a bold statement before moving into a skipping like theme that the booklet notes discuss in terms of a Prokofiev-like parody of the march. This is followed by a Waltz which is less technical than the other two movements, having an air of sinister calm about it that sets it apart from the other two, especially the third Divertimento. The final ‘Burlesque’ is the most powerful as it bristles with nervous energy from the outset and rushes headlong to the somewhat characterful ending.

Joseph Phibbs was born in London. A pianist and cellist he began composing at the age of ten, and at the age of fourteen he began studying at the Purcell School for Young Musicians before, at the age of eighteen, he moved to study music at Kings College London where he studied under Harrison Birtwistle. Up to now he has composed three string quartets with the third being composed earlier this year (2018) for the Belcea Quartet. The String Quartet No. 1 was composed in 2014 for the Piatti Quartet who perform it on this disc; it is a strong and colourful work with complex and contrasting emotional and characterful sections which the composer describes as thus: “The work’s structure as a whole could be seen to be interweaving three layers: five principle movements; four duos, each drawing on a different combination of players; and three short cantos, all of which present the same viola melody in a different guise”. The tune is stated in the opening slow movement and is clearly the core of all the music presented here, no matter how it is bent or distorted; this is music of great rhythmic intensity and tonality and not just in the faster sections. This is a particularly enjoyable modern Quartet, one that builds on traditional quartet writing and has some nice touches. I particularly like the pizzicato central Allegro and the following Duo 2 which for me brings an air of Ravel whilst the following movement’s Piu mosso section points to a piece that would not be out of place in a work by the likes of Steve Reich. So, a Quartet of contrasts and one which shows a personal voice that is happy to build upon the those influences which have interested the composer whilst retaining the personality of the composer. This work is enough to make me want to explore further works by the composer, and whilst there are a few discs in the catalogue for me to invest in, sadly there is no recording of the following two string quartets as yet.

To begin and conclude a three-movement work for string quartet with movements that utilise tracks from the recorded legacy of Led Zeppelin might sound a little outlandish but that is exactly what we get with Mark Anthony Turnage’s Twisted Blues with Twisted Ballad, but he is no stranger to the more unusual choice of subject material. He states in his notes on the piece that he has known the band’s bass and keyboard player, John Paul Jones, for quite a while but really only got to know their music shortly before he completed this work in 2008. The concept works well, although for me the final movement is my favourite with the famous cadence shining through despite Turnage bending and distorting it. In the first movement, on the other hand, he is more blatant in the way that he adapts and varies the music so that there are times when close scrutiny is called for to pick out the tune. The work’s central movement forms a memorial for a personal friend and long-term partner of his former tutor Hans Werner Henze, who had died in 2007. It is a melancholic piece with its use of the body of the cello for percussive purposes and its long cold chords.

I have enjoyed this disc immensely, the playing of the Piatti Quartet being excellent throughout; their program of works presents a selection of different, yet complementary pieces. Who would have thought the Bridge’s lovely Idylls would sit well next to a work inspired by Led Zeppelin, but it does, and does it well! This is a thoughtful piece of programming and one that should be applauded, as it juxtaposes the more traditional with the shock of the new. But in his notes Turnage talks about the expressionism of Berg’s Lyric Suite and how this can be found in his work, whilst Berg was an influence on both Bridge and Britten. The notes are well presented, with both Joseph Phibbs and Mark Anthony Turnage commenting on their own work and further notes by Daniel Jaffe that add substance and context to the work of the earlier composers. The recorded sound is also very good, making this a most desirable disc for Anglophiles and quartetophiles alike, and as I am both, it fits into my collection very well indeed.

Stuart Sillitoe

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