Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
String Quartet No. 2 in A minor (1942-1943)
Gustav Holst (1874-1934)
Phantasy on British Folksongs Op.36 (1916, edited by Roderick Swanston)
Ralph Vaughan Williams
String Quartet No. 1 in G minor (1909, rev.1922)
rec. 2022, St Nicolas’ Parish Church, Thames Ditton, UK
SOMM RECORDINGS SOMMCD0656 
I have been hooked ever since I heard the Music Group of London play Ralph Vaughan William’s String Quartets (EMI HQS 1292). In the following half century or so, there have been several accomplished recordings of these two works by such prestigious ensembles as the Medici, the Maggini, the Nash and the English.
RVW wrote the String Quartet in G minor shortly after he had returned from lessons with Maurice Ravel in Paris. It was first heard in public at the Aeolian Hall on 15 November 1909. It was then withdrawn, and revised in 1921. It is not known what revisions those were. The liner notes suggest they were “unlikely to have been extensive”.
The inspiration for this Quartet may have been the impetus that chamber music got from Walter Willson Cobbett and his national Phantasy competitions. Or perhaps it was Ravel’s Quartet in F major, finished in 1903. RVW himself suggested that it sounded more like he had been “having tea with Debussy”. What is clear is that he has developed a “greater clarity” which Ravel always demanded of his pupils. Any influence from the Frenchmen has been assimilated into the Englishman’s characteristic musical language.
The Quartet has classical poise and refined interrelationships between the movements, and it often seems to be infused with folksong. The final Rondo capriccioso has “dancing measures” and a “fugal jig” that would have impressed Haydn. The booklet correctly says that “nothing quite like this had appeared in English chamber music up to that time”, Stanford’s beautiful Quartets notwithstanding.
Gustav Holst’s Phantasy on British Folksongs was first heard publicly in 1917, and later withdrawn. As the liner notes explain, Holst considered it “insufficient” and his “guilty secret”. The mystery was that he had tried, and in his opinion failed, to write a string quartet. After his death, Imogen Holst edited a version for string orchestra, published as Fantasia on Hampshire Folksongs. This recording is based on an edition by Roderick Swanston. The booklet does not say what folksongs those were, but Imogen Holst writes in Thematic Catalogue of Gustav Holst’s Music (Faber, 1974) that the four Hampshire tunes were Eggs in her basket, The female farmer, The outlandish Knight and Claudy Banks.
The entire work nods towards the English Pastoral School, yet it is not all cow and gate: some acerbic moments look towards Bartók; dancing music and drones give an edge. Yet, the general mood is of reflection, some occasional playfulness and a certain cosmopolitan finesse.
The String Quartet in A minor was premiered on 12 October 1944 at one of the legendary National Gallery Lunchtime Concerts under the auspices of Dame Myra Hess. That was RVW’s 72nd birthday. He dedicated the work to Jean Stewart “on her birthday”. Stewart was at that time the violist with the Menges Quartet, who gave the premiere. That is why her instrument is prominent, “generally leading the discussion virtually throughout”.
The Quartet was roughly contemporaneous with the glorious Symphony No. 5 but it marks a sea-change in style. It preserves some of the serenity and resignation of that work, but also looks forward to the turbulent, unsettled mood of the Symphony No. 6. This neglected masterpiece of chamber music explores a wide range of emotion, from the curiously macabre Scherzo to the beatific Epilogue. The Romance is a curious but beautifully wrought concatenation of the world of the Tallis Fantasia and the troubling final movement of the Symphony No. 6. For me, this performance successfully deals with what has been regarded as the Quartet’s bugbear: balancing the viola with the other members of the ensemble.
Robert Matthew-Walker’s eloquent and informative liner notes make essential reading. The give detailed technical notes on each work, and they contextualise the music in the life and times of both composers. There is a short resumé of the Tippett Quartet. I loved the cover picture, a detail from a watercolour, Revisiting Baxton’s by Yorkshire artist Simon Palmer. It is almost Paul Nash-like in texture, and gives a suitable visual imperative to the music.
This outstanding 150th birthday gift to Ralph Vaughan Williams presents intensely beautiful, erudite and satisfying accounts of the two String Quartets. Over and above, the album majors on the strong and enduring friendship between RVW and Gustav Holst, with Holst’s Phantasy Quartet. Overall, it is a most fitting and moving tribute.
John Mills (violin), Jeremy Isaac (violin), Lydia Lowndes-Northcott (viola), Bozidar Vukotic (cello)
Published: October 12, 2022