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Bax quartet CDLX7389
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Sir Arnold BAX (1883-1953)
String Quartet in E (1903) transcr. Graham Parlett; performing ed. Martin Yeates (2020) [39:02]
Sir Granville BANTOCK (1868-1946)
In a Chinese Mirror: Quartet for Strings (1933) [17:10]
Henry Balfour GARDINER (1877-1950)
String Quartet in B-flat major (1905) [9:57]
John David DAVIS (1867-1942)
Summer’s Eve at Cookham Lock: Idyll, Op 50 (1916) [9:45]
Evan Thomas DAVIES (1878-1969)
Eos Lais (The Nightingale) (1926) [3:14]
Tippett Quartet
rec. September and November 2020, Ste George’s Headstone, Harrow

Dutton’s programming seems to mirror, wittingly or not, the respective musical purchasing power of these five British composers. If one concedes Bax is the most significant of the quintet, then Bantock is certainly a strong second, followed by Balfour Gardiner. Some British music enthusiasts, though I suspect few, may have come across John David Davis but Evan Thomas Davies is certainly the least well remembered.

The major work, at least in terms of timing, is Bax’s String Quartet in E. It was inspired by his early journeying to the west coast of Ireland in 1902 where he was exposed to its landscape and lore and to which he responded almost immediately with this quartet. It’s in three movements and the central slow one was orchestrated as his first tone poem, Cathleen-Ni-Houlihan. This has appeared as an independent work, but the other two movements of the quartet are making their premiere appearance on disc in the transcription from the manuscript made by Graham Parlett. Another stalwart of British music, Martin Yates, has crafted the performing edition.

Bax was only twenty when he wrote the quartet and its compound of Celtic and Slavic influences is clear. The Dvořák sprung and dance rhythms are vital and exciting and Bax packs plenty of incident in the (over)long first movement which is almost orchestral in its teeming effect. The central movement, just as expansive as the first, has fluidity and drive as well as a lyric charge that scarcely lets up. One can understand why he chose to focus on this movement for his tone poem but in a sense the whole quartet cries out for expansion in the same way. The serio-comic heavy booted start to the finale, which annotator Lewis Foreman suggests resembles a traditional fiddle player in action, leads on to more dancing paragraphs, the work ending in a genial jig.

Bantock had a great interest in Chinese poetry and his 1933 Quartet, In a Chinese Mirror reflects that preoccupation. This evocative piece of chinoiserie-impressionism is tone painting of real quality. The mood of the second movement, The Ghost Road, is appositely melancholy but the slow movement is the third, The Celestial Weaver, where Bantock cannily lightens both texture and expressive feeling. The brisk finale strikes me as having, like the Bax, though to a much lesser extent, hints of Dvořák. The Tippett Quartet really dig into the colour and texture of this previously unrecorded music and do it proud.

Balfour Gardiner’s little String Quartet in B-flat major is a compact, one-movement, mellifluous ten-minute work with definable sections. It has some salon-ish elements and an expressive slow section that makes a good appeal to the senses. Dutton’s claim that this is a world premiere recording isn’t correct as it was recorded back in 1929 by the Kutcher Quartet on Edison Bell Electron and they took only eight minutes over it. The Kutcher, great servants of British music in particular, are far more interventionist and ‘vertical’ in their responses than the Tippett who stress the elegance of the piece. The Kutcher locate a rather more shrill, unsettled and alive element though I doubt you’d prefer to listen to their old 78 in preference to the beautifully recorded Tippett Quartet.

John David (J.D.) Davis studied in Frankfurt and then spent many years teaching at the Midland Institute in Birmingham. An almost exact contemporary of Bantock, Foreman relates that his Cello Concerto emerged at around the same time as Elgar’s. I wonder what it’s like. His 1916 idyll called Summer’s Eve at Cookham Lock is a gentle and evocative watercolour, quite without, say, Butterworth’s passion, but offering gentle balm on its own terms. Finally, the Welsh composer and organist Evan Thomas Davies – the same age as Balfour Gardiner – is represented by Eos Lais (The Nightingale), dating from 1926. This is a folk song arrangement, one of many he produced, and it’s both charming and spirited. Both these last works were composed for the London String Quartet.

This enterprising selection of pieces offers a vista on British quartet writing of the period from the ambitious, quasi-orchestral Bax, through the precise orientalism of Bantock, and the compact, genial Gardiner, to the scene painting of Davis and the national arrangement by Davies. The variety is attractive and if this release introduces more people to Davis, who I knew, and Davies, who I didn’t, that’s no bad thing. Perhaps it would be worth exploring Davis’ string quartets and violin sonatas.

The performances, church acoustic recording, booklet notes and artwork are all top-drawer.

Jonathan Woolf

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