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When Alan Ridout died in 1996, at the age of just sixty-one, he left a sizable body of work including fifteen operas, eight symphonies, various concertos and concertinos, chamber music, choral and organ works and many shorter compositions. This music is too infrequently heard today. As Stephen Pettit writes in his liner note for this recording by the Coull Quartet of Ridout’s six string quartets, the composer’s music is “always playable, clear to listen to, beautifully fashioned and idiomatically written”.
After studies with Gordon Jacob, Herbert Howells and Sir Michael Tippett, Ridout worked alongside Thurston Dart and taught at the universities of Cambridge, London and Birmingham, and subsequently at the Royal College of Music where he was Professor of Composition and Theory during the 1960s. In 1968 he moved to Canterbury, forming long and creative associations and friendships with many local musicians, including Allan Wicks (organist at Canterbury Cathedral from 1961 to 1988), Clarence Myerscough (founder of the Fidelio Quartet), Col. Paul Neville (Principal Director of Music at the Royal Marines School of Music in Deal), and Robert Scott, a fellow teacher at The King’s School, Canterbury, and a talented pianist, cellist and composer himself. The latter’s work as compiler of the catalogue of Ridout’s oeuvre, editor of the published scores and advocate for the composer’s music has resulted in this recording on the Omnibus Classics label.
Scott has remarked that while Ridout’s quartets are “not so testing as to be outside the scope of the good amateur ensemble”, they also offer much to “sustain the interests of more experienced players”. Listening to this recording confirms that they are also varied in form and mood, technically assured, and sometimes surprisingly thorny. Several of Ridout’s concertinos have accompaniment for string orchestra or string quartet, so it should perhaps be no surprise that the six string quartets demonstrate confident, economical and expressive handling of the idiom and means.
The six quartets were composed within a period of nine years, but they are not presented chronologically on this disc. Rather, we start with the Second Quartet (1987), which was dedicated to Scott, and then move on to the last two quartets: the Fifth or ‘Stocklinch’ (1993) draws its title from one of the nine villages in Somerset which suffered no losses during World War 1; ‘Le Vitréen’, Ridout’s final quartet, composed the following year, is named after the Britanny town, Vitré, where he settled after a serious heart-attack in 1990. Then, we work backwards, through the single-movement Fourth Quartet of 1992, Quartet No.3 (1987), arriving finally at the First Quartet which Ridout composed in 1985.
This quasi-symmetrical arc makes sense. The opening Vivace of the Second Quartet is a vibrant clarion call, the 3+2 and 4+3 alternations pulsing with a jazzy vibe allied with folky joie de vivre. The Coull Quartet’s homophony rings richly and invitingly, brightening as the pitch rises, softening as it falls. When the cello separates from the ensemble the syncopated pizzicato bursts through with unexpected, destabilising pings, while melodic counter-strands form lyrical fragments that offer just the right dash of relaxation to the relentlessness. The Lento cantabile sings with a wistfulness that it doesn’t seem unjust, and certainly not negative, to describe as entirely English. After doleful sighs, played with pianissimo tenderness and a wonderful blend of purpose and fragility, the shocking beauty of the first violin’s crystalline high entry is both disconcerting and deeply touching. It inspires yearnful interweaving which somehow bears the weight of astonishingly and achingly sincere emotions within its brevity. The concluding tierce de Picardie reminds one of Ridout’s role within the continuation of the English cathedral tradition, but solemnity and sublimity are swept aside by the Presto scherzoso, with its cheeky imitative slippages, rhythmic stop-starts and dancing decorative interjections.
Barely ten minutes have passed but the listener who is not hooked by now must be one of Wordsworth’s “dull of soul”! And, the immediate devotee is instantly rewarded by the Fifth Quartet, a single movement with three distinct sections which is infectiously energised and inventive: nothing is overly complicated, everything is convincing, and the result is utterly compelling. The Coull Quartet make the first part shine with the rhythmic spring and tunefulness of the Tippett of the Concerto for Double String Orchestra, and this section elides effortlessly via a viola murmur to a cello theme, which could be despondently elegiac but which in the Coull Quartet’s hands, and at a fairly swift tempo, etches elegant but purposeful paths. After a metrically altered re-working of the first part, which pushes the material higher and further, and in which the Coull tighten the rope even more tautly, Ridout presents his master-stroke: a coda which rudely interrupts the youthful ebullience with fleeting but heart-felt reflections for the two high violins above a cello pedal, resolving into a major chord which the Coull Quartet make resonate with comforting restfulness.
Time for a disclosure: I have played the Fifth Quartet with Scott himself in the cellist’s seat. The incision, emotional range and structural fluency of the Coull Quartet’s performance make me long to play the work again, and to explore the other quartets on this disc. ‘Le Vitréen’ presents an affectionate portrait of a loved place. The very simplicity of the hymn-like ‘Le Château’ is its power, though the building’s presence inspires an impressive awe as the movement progresses and the texture and harmonies thicken. The high-lying closing reflections are gently shaped by the Coull Quartet, gradually retreating into reverence. ‘Le Marché’ dances to a spritely beat, and the Coull show that they know how to make both the freshness of Ridout’s naturally unfolding melodies and the vitality of string pizzicato pack their punches. Star-bound violin spinning above sul ponticello tremolo evokes inexplicable but undoubtedly transformative experiences in ‘L’église Notre Dame’ and this movement, so insightfully phrased and coloured by the Coull Quartet, shows how sparseness can speak of both the searchings and consolations of the human spirit.
The Fourth Quartet is cast, like the Fifth, in a single-movement, embracing three sections and moods within its thirteen minutes. The evenness of the Coull’s voices, and the directional impetus of the voice-leading, in the initial Adagissimo is impressive; there is a mesmeric progression higher and higher, further and further towards an intensity that is persuasively articulated by the Coull’s firmly proclaimed statements of explorations and discoveries. The transition to the Allegro assai, with its repetitive patternings, catches one unawares, and here the timbre of the Coull’s upper strings is delightfully prickly against the cello’s bell-ringing descents. There’s much terrifically gutsy playing here that makes one feel that the musicians are in one’s living room, until an eerie harmonic passage and an austere homophonic repetition of the opening section shatter the sense of complicity.
The highlight of Quartet No.3, dedicated to Stephen Barlow and his wife Joanna Lumley, is the first movement Fugue: there is probing, precision and power here worthy of Shostakovich, Britten and Bartók – and again, after the intellectual intensity, the Coull’s softening of their sound for the major-resolving cadence is wonderfully consoling. I love the delicious richness of the middle voices in the Scherzo: this is, as the Coull Quartet show us, music which delights in its fecundity, frivolousness and finely tuned timbres. The Passacaglia initially challenges, even assaults, the listener, with its potency and focus, but towards the close we are enveloped in rich, resolving harmonic unwindings.
The First Quartet concludes the Coull’s essay of Ridout’s string quartets. In many ways this is the most ‘difficult’ of the six quartets on this disc – emotionally, intellectually and musically. The disjointed organum of the Adagio e desolato is unsettling, and the intrusive cello double-stops grate and grind with nerve-testing immediacy. The Coull Quartet make every textural crunch and resonating dissonance hit its mark. A life-asserting energy is restored in the Con slancio and here the Coull’s care and precision is appreciated, as they whip through the wildness. The Variazioni which conclude the quartet seem to bear the shadow of Shostakovich most strongly, and as lower and upper strings are pitted against each other the Coull Quartet do not shy from the aggressive pain of this music.