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As far as I can establish, this is the first ever commercially released disc devoted to the music of Malvern-born Douglas Weiland, despite his fulsome description in the booklet as “having long been acclaimed as a master of the quartet medium” and his identification as “Sir Neville Marriner’s most commissioned composer….” He has clearly been fortunate throughout his career to have enjoyed the fervent support of the Australian violinist William Hennessy who compiled this introduction. Hennessy is the leader of the Melbourne Quartet who perform these works here; he is clearly an energetic and discerning advocate for new music of high quality.
The descending theme which opens the fifth quartet exudes good taste and elegance and as this first movement (basically an Allegro) proceeds any residual concerns about hyperbole in Hennessy’s notes rapidly evaporate, to the point that one can only wonder why it has taken so long for Weiland’s music to be put on disc. It is supple, beautifully paced, imaginatively coloured and most democratically laid out for the instruments – it must be both invigorating and grateful to play. As Hennessy implies, so fastidious is its conception that one marvels at the seamless integration and variance of this initial idea as the panel develops. The extended Siciliana which follows derives its essence from the parallel slow movement in Haydn’s F minor quartet Op 20 No 5. The gentle dissonances at its outset are mildly spiced, piquant rather than grating, and yield to music which alternates lightness with understated intensity. The movement radiates music of rare depth and considerable emotional ambiguity. Apart from its Haydnesque soul, I found the Melbourne Quartet’s trilling violins evoked Corelli more than once. The animated little passage before the rapt chorale-like coda is a quiet delight. A Bartókian flourish kicks off the finale. This introduction seems to pose some profound questions and duly (at 1:30) yields to the swiftest music in the quartet, a tour-de-force of colour and effects tastefully woven into an intricately designed fabric. Hints of fugue emerge and melt into music whose richness never approaches stodge. Weiland manages to navigate this fine vehicle for the quartet medium back to the affirmative B flat major with which it began with an inevitability which quite belies the scenic route it has travelled.
Weiland’s fifth quartet followed hot on the heels of its predecessor, a fourth attempt at the form whose five movement arch-like five structure Hennessy compares to Bartók’s fifth quartet, although he qualifies this by proposing that Schubert seems to have been more in the composer’s mind during the composition of its central movement, which incorporates a big Scherzo and Trio. Weiland’s own publisher thought sufficiently highly of this fourth quartet that he nominated it for consideration for the 2014 Grawemeyer Award. In architectural terms the odd-numbered movements are meaty essays which each extend to nine minutes, while their even-numbered counterparts are briefer, gentler affairs which offer one an opportunity to take stock. A deceptively insouciant descending figure again starts proceedings. The repeated notes underneath the melody certainly do suggest Schubert, but after this hovering, questioning introduction the movement explodes into action in a more astringent, acerbic rapid section which scurries hither and thither making measured references to the original motif, a strategy which provides the listener with a familiar waypoint. Momentum is the order of the day in much of Weiland’s quartet writing but propulsive as the movement is in general, loud energetic episodes are leavened by the alternation of lighter, less edgy passages. Weiland’s mastery of the quartet form is self-evident in this finely crafted panel. Eerie tremolandi punctuate the atmosphere of the Misterioso second movement which veers between Bartókian nachtmusik and something warmer and of a more classical hue. At 3 55 an intense climax is short-lived and leads to a conclusion which is understated and rather melancholy. There are deft nocturnal twitchings in its final moments.
But it’s the central Scherzo Germanesque which is clearly the emotional and structural hub of this work; its elegant opening bars presage an exciting span of fastidious craftsmanship and memorable material. Weiland’s rhythmic shifts occasionally stray into Brittenish territory, but there’s so much going on in this movement – texturally, contrapuntally and melodically that one is left in no doubt that Weiland is very much his own man. The brief pizzicato passage from 8:08 is delicious. There is a singular voice at work here, one I would certainly identify as English, though. In the brief Intermezzo-Pastorale which follows, the additional marking Grazioso, appassionata characterises the measured intensity of its material to a tee. The Allegro molto finale’s urgent skittering introduction unfolds into another big swathe of contrasting ideas and kaleidoscopic detail that really requires more than the two listens I have afforded it to date. Its abrupt changes of pace and mood are realised magnificently by these seasoned Aussie players and positively demand repeated hearing. The conclusion of the piece is as unusual as it is effective – I won’t spoil it for prospective listeners. One knows the music is good when the listener hears more, much more at the second time of asking. I was astonished to find the work lasts almost 40 minutes – it flies by.
The Melbourne Quartet absolutely inhabit each of these big, serious works. There is never any sense of indifference or ‘play-through’; every nuance, texture, colour and beat cuts through with clarity and style. On this evidence one cannot help but wonder why Weiland’s profile on disc is non-existent. I do not know anything about him, save for the brief details provided on his website, but to my ears his is music of palpable humanity and profound vision. Although his language is very different, the integrity and craftsmanship that pours forth from these quartets recall the seriousness of purpose and classical stylings of Robert Simpson, who as far as I’m concerned remains (by some margin) the finest composer of string quartets these islands have yet produced. I have little doubt that admirers of his magnificent cycle will respond just as readily to Douglas Weiland’s quartets.
The Naxos sound constitutes one of the most natural, generous and sympathetic quartet recordings I have yet encountered on the label. Hats off to the engineers who have harnessed the impressive acoustic of Melbourne’s Iwaki Auditorium most effectively; music and playing of this quality merit nothing less. I certainly hope Naxos will record more, much more of Douglas Weiland’s music. The other three (to date) quartets would constitute an apt follow-up. Meanwhile lovers of fine English chamber music should snap this up without delay.