Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
String Quartet No 2 in A minor ‘For Jean on her Birthday’ (1942-43)
Gustav Holst (1874-1934)
Phantasy on British Folksongs, Op 36 (1916)
Ralph Vaughan Williams
String Quartet No 1 in G minor (1908)
rec. 2022, St. Nicholas Parish Church, Thames Ditton, UK
SOMM RECORDINGS SOMMCD0656 
As the actual 150th anniversary of Vaughan Williams’ birth on October 12th approaches it is no surprise that this year has seen a substantial number of fine new performances and recordings of his works. Relatively absent from that list have been new versions of his chamber music. Quite probably the main reason for this is that aside from a raft of apprentice works he did not write that much for traditional chamber ensembles. The Vaughan Williams Society website lists just a dozen works between the String Quartet No 1 in G minor of 1908 offered here and of those two accompany voices and another six are attractive but ‘minor’ works. Which leaves the two quartets offered here, the wonderful Phantasy Quintet and the knotty late Violin Sonata. In the past record labels have addressed this either by combining the quartets with the quintet – a logical and attractive option – or by creating a ‘chamber overview’; most famously on Warner/EMI where Hugh Bean’s led the Music Group of London in compelling versions of the 2nd Quartet, Quintet, Sonata and Six Studies in English Folk Song – there is a near-identical programme offered by the Nash Ensemble on Hyperion.
On this new disc from the Tippett Quartet on Somm they have chosen a slightly different path with the two quartets played either side of Holst’s rare
Phantasy on British Folksongs, Op 36. Given the close and lifelong friendship and artistic kinship between the two composers this seems on the surface to be an interesting/useful even logical coupling but I am not sure it does Holst many favours but more about that later. Important to state at the outset this is another musical and technical feather in Somm’s cap. The Tippet Quartet play quite superbly throughout and are recorded in rich detailed and full sound by producer Siva Oke and engineer Adaq Khan. As mentioned above the two string quartets pretty much book-end Vaughan Williams’ mature compositional career. No 1 from 1908 sees him on the cusp of discovering his true individual style whereas by the time he wrote No 2 some thirty five years later every bar speaks with the wholly original and authentic voice of Britain’s senior living composer.
The disc opens with the String Quartet No 2 in A minor ‘For Jean on her Birthday’. The Jean in question was Jean Stewart the violist in the Menges Quartet who gave the first performance at a National Gallery Concert in October 1944. Vaughan Williams had known Stewart since her student years and in any case showed a particular affinity for the viola throughout his life. Hence the unusual feature of this quartet is that the viola is given the primary material in every movement. The Tippett Quartet’s violist is Lydia Lowndes-Northcott and her playing is simply glorious – firm toned and full throated as well as expressive and sensitive. But to be fair the same descriptions could describe all her colleagues in the quartet throughout this disc. In the liner note Robert Matthew-Walker notes that this work is contemporaneous with the visionary
Symphony No 5 with its association with The Pilgrim’s Progress but the musical landscape of the first three movements is closer to the later violin sonata. Interesting too to note how Vaughan Williams could be more economical with his textures and part-writing. A direct comparison of the two quartet slow movements – both titled Romance - is telling. In the A minor quartet this is more than twice the length of any other movement and the clear heart of the work. But this is a chilly slowly meandering movement an emotional world away from the Symphony No 5’s equivalent Romanza. In the quartet Vaughan Williams is exploring a far bleaker landscape. Andrew Burn in his liner note for the Nash Ensemble’s fine version on Hyperion made the analogy of a Jacobean Viol Consort which, with the use of no vibrato and the sparsest of textures, is an evocative one. The Tippetts produce a warmer and fuller sound – even without vibrato – than the etiolated Music Group of London. Perhaps most challenging of all are the Magginis on Naxos who take the largo marking very literally and are nearly a minute slower than the Tippetts. The Magginis seem to play “sul tasto” as well as “senza vib” which makes the music even more ethereal and distant – to compelling effect I find. Especially so as when the music moves to C major with vibrato and the normal bow position restored the sense of sunlight bursting through is especially powerful. Certainly this movement does not seek the nihilism that stalks the epilogue finale of the Symphony No.6. The finale of the quartet is also marked Epilogue Andante but here the mood lifts and achieves something of the benedictory hymnlike quality found in the 5th symphony. This movement is subtitled “Greetings from Joan to Jean” and is a reference to the thematic use of material from an unused film score to Bernard Shaw’s St. Joan. This quartet as a whole is an impressively concentrated even uncompromising work and one that does not sit easily within lazy definition of Vaughan Williams as an English Pastoralist. On disc it has received several very fine performances with all of the above vying with versions from the Medici and English Quartets amongst others. This new version sounds wonderful in every respect with the playing and engineering easily the equal of any other version. For me it must cede pre-eminence to the Magginis who I feel push the expressive boundaries even further with the Romance and the Epilogue benefitting from the broader basic tempi.
In 1908 Vaughan Williams was on the cusp of finding his uniquely original voice – this was the year after all of his productive studies in Paris with Ravel. The first quartet is a big confident work that runs not far short of half an hour’s playing time. What is remarkable is how much of this work is recognisably the mature composer. As Matthew-Walker says; “nothing quite like this had appeared in English chamber-music up to that time...”. The 1905 Cobbett Prize produced the first tranche of distinctly British Quartets with William Hurlstone taking the substantial 50 Guineas 1st prize but his Phantasie Quartet runs for less than nine minutes. Returning to the Vaughan Williams work, of course the model of 19th Century European string quartets is audible – especially in the 2nd movement Minuet and Trio but this is Vaughan Williams the quiet revolutionary. Although written in 1908 the work was revised in 1922 but it is not clear to what degree the work was changed – Matthew-Walker believes that the revisions are “unlikely to have been extensive” but until the score of the original version can be viewed that remains conjecture. In this work the full-toned Tippett Quartet sound especially fine with the four instruments blended quite beautifully. Vaughan Williams is starting to use melodic shapes influenced or at least guided by folksong and more-so the modal/harmonic implications of folksong. This is particularly audible in the Romance – andante sostenuto played with ideal hushed intensity by the Tippetts. The boisterously skipping Rondo Capriccioso finale passingly hints at “When Johnny comes marching home” – by accident rather than design I am sure – but this sets the tone for a rumbustious movement raree in British chamber music up until this time. Vaughan Williams side slips rhythms and keys with chaotic glee that the Tippett Quartet toss off with ease. I especially like the Britten Quartet’s recording of this quartet – a little leaner sounding than the Tippetts as recorded and although the timings are quite similar the effect from the Brittens is something nimbler and more capricious. But that said this finale particularly benefits from the Tippett’s hale and hearty approach – both are superbly effective and dynamic performances.
Placed between the two Vaughan Williams quartets is Holst’s Phantasy on British Folksongs, Op 36 which dates from 1916 as the composer’s entry to the famed Cobbett Chamber Music prize competition. The 1916 competition was specifically for a “Folk Song Phantasy” the key feature being a work in different sections to be played continuously. The piece plays for just over ten minutes and folksongs one of which at least –Bedlam City – which opens the quartet had appeared in Volume 3 of the Novello “Folk-Songs of England” edited by Cecil Sharp. Holst did not collect the folksong himself but in volume 3 he provided the piano accompaniments. In the liner Matthew-Walker relates Holst referring to the work as “insufficient” and “a guilty secret” but he goes onto suggest that Holst’s daughter Imogen, who could be notoriously critical of her father’s work, thought differently about this quartet. His evidence being that Imogen arranged the work for string orchestra after his death. But referring to Imogen’s “The Music of Gustav Holst” suggests differently. There she writes; “...he was defeated when he tried to turn folksongs into a Phantasy Quartet [which] sounds as if it had been written by a young and inexperienced student [who] by labelling them with the long-suffering title of ‘Phantasy’ [could] cover a multitude of inadequacies”. Michael Short in his “Gustav Holst The Man and his Music” further states; “this idea did not work very well... the result seemed artificial and contrived”. Worth pointing out too that the Cobbett judges did not place the work in their prize-winning top three either which went, in order, to Harry Waldo-Warner, Herbert Howells and Edward Norman Hay.
The main issue is that Holst does little with the actual melodies – attractive though they are – except pass them around the quartet in a variety of accompaniments and voicings. By 1916 both Holst and Vaughan Williams were well-beyond the first flush of folksong revelation and inspiration and the unavoidable conclusion is that this work was more about winning the 25 Guineas first prize rather than any creative compulsion. All that said, it receives a fine and polished performance here but I cannot imagine it being included if it were not for the relationship between the two composers. To be honest if a filler was required and the usual couplings mentioned above were not considered there are other pieces that would have fitted the bill better. Although this Holst is a rare work it has been recorded before – on EM Records by the Bridge Quartet – so there is not even a question of this being a CD premiere. In the company of the two distinctive and impressive Vaughan Williams Quartets, this Holst Phantasy seems further diminished so a rare programming mis-step by SOMM.
However, as a whole this is another very well played, well-presented and beautifully engineered disc. I am glad that during this anniversary year the two quartets have received as powerful performances as these. For those seeking out more of Vaughan Williams’ chamber music, the Naxos disc from the Maggini Quartet features the three main string works in idiomatic performances and the Warner disc with Hugh Bean is a genuine classic. For the first quartet alone I warmly recommend the Britten Quartet coupled with a fine On Wenlock Edge and an intriguing Ravel Quartet which allows the listener to immediately hear the impact the younger French composer had on his eager British pupil.
Previous review: John France
Published: November 1, 2022