William Henry Reed (1875-1942)
String Quartet No.4 in C major (1913)
Légende for String Quartet (1922-23)
String Quartet No.5 in A minor (1915)
Cirrus String Quartet
rec. 2022 Pamoja Hall, The Space, Sevenoaks School, Kent England

Ever since news of this recording being made was announced via a crowd-funding page earlier in the year I have been looking forward to hearing this disc. I am pleased to say the wait has been worth it – this is really impressive music played with enormous skill and commitment by the Cirrus String Quartet and presented in excellent sound. Producer Mike Purton runs his own label dedicated to recording rare British Chamber Music and several of his previous releases have been very positively reviewed on this site. Here the musical spotlight has fallen on William Henry Reed – known as Billy to his friends and colleagues. Even for British music enthusiasts, Reed’s name will most likely be known as the friend and biographer of Elgar with his book “Elgar as I knew him” the original source for the sketches of the senior composer’s Symphony No.3. A few will know some of his work as a composer through the disc of his (mainly) miniatures for violin and viola released on Dutton nearly twenty years ago. Fine and interesting though those works are, the essentially smaller scale nature of the music it contains paints only a partial picture of Reed the composer. Therefore this disc, which contains two quartets which run around the half hour mark, represents most listeners’ first opportunity to assess his work when writing on a more substantial and extended musical canvas.

No surprise from a man who led the LSO for twenty-five years and to whom Elgar turned for practical instrumental advice when writing his violin concerto and late chamber works, these are eminently well-written works that sound wonderfully full and sonorous. Reed wrote five numbered quartets – frustratingly Nos.1-3 are missing – as well as a pair of short ‘character’ pieces. One is the two movement Légende included on this disc and then there is the intriguingly titled Morning on the Karoo and In a Zulu location which is a late work – the manuscript is dated “September 30th 1940” and appears to have been written while onboard The Stirling Castle between Southampton and Cape Town. For those interested, the published score and parts for the String Quartet No.5 and the original manuscripts of Légende and Morning on the Karoo and In a Zulu location can be viewed on the wonderful IMSLP site. The two surviving quartets – No.4 remains in manuscript in the Royal College of Music library – were both written after Reed met and became friends with Elgar. They had first crossed paths in 1902 but it was only after a chance meeting when Elgar asked for help with the Violin Concerto in 1910 that the friendship blossomed. Hard not to conjecture that Elgar knew of Reed’s quartets although whether during the formative or performing stage is not clear. That said, although they share a similar overall tonal palette there is little if any sense that Reed was musically indebted to the senior composer.

In fact the main and abiding impression of the two quartets given here is how richly and effectively they are scored for the four instruments and how well distributed around those instruments the material is. The first violin of the Cirrus String Quartet, Martin Smith, contributes the extremely interesting and well-written liner note for this release. He quotes Cyril Scott’s valid but often forgotten point; many of the leading London Quartets of the time counted in their members significant composers. The Philharmonic Quartet – Eugene Goossens, The English Quartet – Frank Bridge, The London – Albert Sammons and Harry Waldo Warner [the latter’s music especially ripe for rediscovery]. This illustrious list was joined by The British String Quartet led by Billy Reed. To that list could be added Eric Coates – a temporary member of the Hambourg Quartet for whom he wrote his only piece of original chamber music – the Minuet on the Londonderry Air. All of which indicates the high standard of both playing and creativity at work in the finest British string quartets at the time this music was being written.

Both quartets are in the standard four movement form. No.4 in C major opens with an Allegro moderato that is good natured and effectively written but somehow just a little emotionally neutral. In fact, this movement is possibly the least musically interesting part of the entire disc. That said, it does establish the quality of the playing and recording. The sound itself is quite close with the player’s breathing often audible but the engineering overseen by Tony Faulkner creates a warm and detailed sound-stage which allows the quartet to produce a sound that is both individually clear but collectively integrated. So even in a movement such at this which does not grab the emotional attention as other movements will, there is much to enjoy in terms of the sheer craft of Reed’s writing and its execution in these performances.

The composer’s inspiration runs much higher through the remainder of this quartet as is immediately evident from the second movement which he titled Ritornello. The dictionary definition of this musical form is; “means "little return" and it is a recurring passage of music throughout the work....ritornello brings back the subject or main theme in fragments and in different keys”. After a brief series of introductory chords, the viola is given the sombre main theme accompanied by a sequence of bare held chords from the other instruments. The theme itself is interesting in that it hovers somewhere between folk-inflected modality and a kind of Tudor church music – in the liner Smith suggests a distant kinship with the Vaughan Williams Tallis Fantasia which Reed had led at its premiere just three years earlier. In the sense that the theme has a ‘timeless’ quality I think the comparison is valid. By following the ritornello form rather than standard thematic development Reed dresses this tune in a variety of instrumental combinations and accompaniments in a very effective and quite unusual way. In none of the works on the disc is Reed particularly harmonically adventurous let alone modernist but here he creates a gently poignant melody which he treats quite beautifully. Again credit to the Cirrus Quartet for finding the perfect balance between poise and passion. So while this might not be a radical piece of music it is certainly striking and individual. The third movement juxtaposes a flowing slightly Brahmsian allegretto that includes a walking pizzicato bass line with a skittering compound time presto. The finale is longest movement – just – of this well-balanced work. Another sombre and pensive adagio con espressione leads into a brighter more confident allegro moderato. This movement shows Reed exploiting near-orchestral richness and figurations in the string writing which the Cirrus String Quartet play with secure confidence even though it sounds demanding both in terms of ensemble and intonation. Roughly one minute from the end of the work the tempo slows and the textures thin with the bare chords of the Ritornello recalled before the quartet ends in hushed serenity.

The Légende is placed between the two main quartets with the two movements running for roughly eleven minutes. Reed wrote the work in late 1922/early 1923 for the quartet led by Jessie Snow. Snow was an old friend and former pupil – he clearly held her in high regard as he wrote his Violin Concerto for her. Smith in the liner conjectures that this Légende was written so that the newly formed quartet had a new work to showcase. As mentioned above, this brief work is more interested in exploring quartet textures and timbres rather than studiously developing musical material. There does not appear to be any discernible narrative behind the title – these are simply a pair of attractive and contrasted movements. The first movement moves from pastoral scene to a rather lovely muted slow waltz. The second movement is marked allegro (moderato) and flits between various moods. Indeed so sharply do the sections contrast with Reed deploying sul ponticello effects amongst other things that it does make one wonder if some capricious tale or picture is being outlined. The ending is intriguingly abrupt with the lower two string playing a ricochet downward glissando answered by nonchalant harmonics from the violins.

The disc is completed by the String Quartet No.5 in A minor. This was/is the only major piece of Reed’s chamber music to have been published. As with so many British composers at this time, he wrote the work as an entry for a Cobbett Chamber Music competition. Unlike some of the previous competitions, in 1914 Cobbett did not require entries to be in the ‘linked’ Phantasy form that he had previously stipulated. The only requirement was for all the parts to have near-equal musical significance. Reed’s quartet made it through to the shortlist of four works which were performed to an audience before the prizes were awarded. Quartets by Albert Sammons and Frank Bridge took a joint 1st prize with Reed 2nd.

From the very opening there is a definite sense of Reed sharing the musical material and argument. Also the rising figuration of the opening theme has an Elgarian sweep to it even though it goes across a full octave as opposed to Elgar’s preferred 7th. Even when the music moves to A major there is still an underlying current of tension and illease. Certainly part of Reed’s skill in this movement is the way he develops the thematic material so effectively. For sure this is essentially quite conservative music for the year in which it was written but that should not diminish its appeal or craft. Reed places the scherzo second in this quartet and the mood lifts considerably from the preceding movement. There is a fairly brief central section that although written in 3/8 it sounds for much of the time 2/8. Indeed Reed toys with what the ear hears and the eye sees on the page following the score. This kind of playful teasing mood provides a strong and effective contrast to the heart of the work in the third movement Adagio (quasi recitativo). This is a demanding movement for the players written in awkward G sharp minor and requiring double stoppings in all parts as Reed looks to thicken the usual quartet textures. Again all credit to the Cirrus String Quartet for not just overcoming the technical hurdles this presents but also finding a very convincing and engaging emotional arc to the music as well. With such lush and thickly written music it can become easy for the interpretation to get lost in the thickets of notes – not so here. In striking contrast, the finale opens with a sparsely scored Andante misterioso although this quickly reaches an impassioned climax before the main body of the movement – Allegro moderato – is reached. This is harmonically the most ambiguous/ambitious of the music on this disc slipping through a number of keys and moods with Reed again making considerable demands on the players. Gradually as the work builds towards its final climax A major is finally achieved and the motif that opened the entire work returns although this time it does just span a major seventh!

Hard not to imagine Reed as either composer or string player not being delighted and impressed by the quality of the music making on this disc. Likewise the presentation and production is first rate. Aside from Martin Smith’s excellent essay, the booklet – in English only – includes photographs of Reed and another of him alongside his friend and mentor Elgar. All of the music here is receiving its premiere commercial recordings and indeed this is the Cirrus String Quartet’s first commercial release. As ever in these circumstances huge credit to the quartet for devoting the time, effort and considerable skill learning these unknown but impressive scores. This release shows Reed to be far more than ‘just’ the composer of attractive miniatures. There is real sinew and substance to this music. I see from the Quartet’s website [https://www.cirrusstringquartet.com/] that between now and the end of 2022 they will be performing all of the music on this disc in concerts around Southern England – I would warmly recommend hearing this music either live or on this revelatory CD.

Nick Barnard
While preparing to write this review I came across a written submission by Mike Purton who produced this disc and owns the label on which it was released. This was sent to the UK Parliamentary Committee on Digital, Cultural, Media and Sport outlining the financial difficulties of producing discs such as this one. Difficulties that one imagines the current cost of living crisis has only exacerbated. But it does underline what a commitment and labour of love by artists and labels such a release as this represents.

Martin Smith, Suzanne Loze – violins, Morgan Goff – viola, David Burrows – cello

Published: October 7, 2022