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Hyperion Records

CDA66718 - Elgar: String Quartet; Bridge: Idylls; Walton: String Quartet
A Winter Landscape by Christopher Richard Wayne Nevinson (1889-1946)

Recording details: December 1993
St Silas the Martyr, Kentish Town, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Gary Cole
Engineered by Gary Cole
Release date: July 1994
Total duration: 71 minutes 53 seconds


'Eloquent and sensitive performances of some of the finest British chamber works of our century' (BBC Music Magazine)

'Outstandingly beautiful playing … of beguiling sensitivity and exhilaration' (CDReview)

Elgar: String Quartet; Bridge: Idylls; Walton: String Quartet
Allegro molto  [9'59]
Allegro con moto  [3'50]
Allegro  [9'53]
Presto  [3'50]
Lento  [9'47]
Allegro molto  [4'20]
Introduction  EnglishFrançaisDeutsch
The years from 1899 (the year of the ‘Enigma’ Variations) to 1919 (that of the Cello Concerto) were the most creative and important of Edward Elgar’s life. Until then he had little national success: born in 1857 in Worcester, he was considered a provincial composer. More than that, he was virtually self-taught. But ‘Enigma’ proved the turning point. It was his first undoubted masterpiece, and on an international scale; within a few years Elgar found himself at the forefront of British music, highly regarded in Europe and America. The Dream of Gerontius (although the premiere in Germany was not a success), Cockaigne and other works cemented his growing stature, but, above all, the Pomp and Circumstance marches reached the widest public and his music became known and loved from King to butcher’s boy.

The First Symphony of 1908 and Violin Concerto of 1910, composed for Hans Richter and Fritz Kreisler respectively, marked the epitome of Elgar’s fame, yet the public aspect was but one part of this enigmatic and very English artist. His Second Symphony, planned as a tribute to King Edward VII, altered character during its gestation. The King died suddenly in May 1910, before the work was finished, his death following those of six of Elgar’s friends the previous year. The composer himself had turned fifty; his wife was ten years older than he; and their only child had recently celebrated her twenty-first birthday. This is not to say a sense of mortality entered Elgar’s music during this period; it was almost always there, but now it was nearer the surface than before. From the Second Symphony onwards, no large-scale orchestral work of Elgar’s ends in triumph.

The Great War left its mark on Elgar as it did on all Europeans. His music during the war years shows the public and private aspects of his muse as never before. On the one hand, we have Polonia, Le drapeau belge and The Spirit of England; and on the other the three great chamber works—the Violin Sonata (Op 82), the String Quartet (Op 83) and the Piano Quintet (Op 84), which were written in rural England, in a Sussex cottage where, in 1919, Elgar also began his Cello Concerto.

The Violin Sonata was finished in September 1918. The String Quartet is dated three months later, and shares the same key, E minor (this was also to be the key of the Cello Concerto). This was Elgar’s only mature string quartet—despite drafts for four, possibly five, quartets from his youth—and he knew that writing it was not a task to be undertaken lightly. Elgar’s E minor Quartet is one of his masterpieces. Valedictory yet forward-looking, it is the work of a major composer at the height of his powers.

The first movement is one of Elgar’s greatest structural and emotional achievements. The first theme, anchored in the home key, is ambivalent in its metrical pulse, being cast in 12/8 and in 4/4. The 4/4 time signature could have been used throughout, but its interruption of the basic 12/8 flow creates a striking emotional effect. In this regard, the first movements of both of Elgar’s symphonies are recalled—not so much thematically (although the E flat Symphony is closer) but in dynamic interaction. Thus, before announcing all the themes on which the first movement is based, Elgar has postulated a considerable compositional problem. But, as with everything he wrote, it is expressed in music of deep emotion, and with much subtlety, for within the first subject we encounter elements of three themes, thus making an exposition within an exposition. This would seem to call for extensive development but what we have here is music which is highly concentrated—the opposite pole from the prolixity for which his art is often criticized by those who understand it least. Such contrasted juxtaposition demands a further expansion—that of tonality, and Elgar’s free-ranging mastery is here shown to be consummate. The movement is in E minor but ranges through such disparate keys as F major, C minor and B flat minor (within an E minor context), the music compensating for its overt lack of thematic-developmental dynamism by being wide-ranging in metre and tonality, which in turn make the recapitulation and the concluding coda amongst the loftiest utterances Elgar ever wrote. Here is great art, suffused at the very end of the movement by an autumnal mood—common to much of Elgar’s late music—partly of reminiscence, of a resigned acceptance of life’s experience. In this regard one can at times sense a looking-back—the Serenade for Strings is fleetingly alluded to, more than once. The recapitulation, in reverse, makes the simple cadence of E minor to E major in the final bars something new, and deeply moving, in his music.

The complexities of the first movement demand relaxation. In the second, marked Piacevole [peacefully] (Poco moderato), we have just such a reverie. This begins without the first violin as a simple string trio for twenty-two bars—and when the first violin enters it doubles the second at the octave, continuing the trio-like texture for a further twelve bars. In the first movement’s muscular moments, double-stopping strained the medium of four stringed instruments: here, in utter contrast, we are given a theme of simplicity and beauty in a movement which also looks back to earlier times—to the Chanson de matin, which is similarly quoted. This movement was one of Lady Elgar’s favourites and was played at her funeral in 1920. For all the overt simplicity, the key of the Piacevole—effectively a slow movement but akin to a Brahmsian Intermezzo—is C major which, retrospectively, embraces the ‘foreign’ tonalities of the first movement, forming a deep bond with E minor, and glimpses the ultimate key of E major.

How this is achieved is quite remarkable and deceptively simple. We know, in terms of structural tonality, that Elgar’s Quartet is in E minor: the first movement, for all its forays, did not leave that ‘home’ key for any great length of time. It actually ended, magically and quietly, in E major. The Intermezzo-like second movement was in the simple and classically pure key of C major. In this context the note E defines C major, preventing it from falling into the minor mode, with further emotional implications. C major was the key of reminiscence, but as the end of the first movement implied E major, not E minor, as the ultimate goal, the finale embarks upon a thrilling musical journey.

The finale, Allegro molto, begins with a peremptory gesture which anchors E minor but which is so fast we may not realize that it takes as its springboard the very C–E third with which the second movement ended. There is, however, no emotional reminiscence here, no ‘looking-back’ to the keys or themes of reverie. So, if C major is to be erased from the work’s ultimate tonal goal, its dominant, G, also has to be removed. But just as the note E defined C major, so the note G defines E minor—therefore E minor cannot be the final key. It has to be E major, whose mediant is G sharp. Quite apart from the artistic skill of such a tonal framework, the music bears out the emotional implication: exceptional in Elgar’s mature compositions, the finale of his String Quartet does not recall earlier music in the work. Thus the tonal structure has defined the emotional nature of the music with breathtaking mastery. The finale is intense in rhythmic élan, mercurial in its flight through oblique keys, and propelled by themes so germinally related as to cause the compositional virtuosity of their construction to be hidden as secretly as any enigma.

The result is a great masterpiece. Deep processes are at work in Elgar’s Quartet—a new Elgar, suggesting a golden ‘final period’ which did not, sadly, flower as one might have hoped. The death of Lady Elgar, to whom he owed so much, removed the mainstay from his life, and new music—in England as well as on the Continent—was the rage in the post-war years. The torch had been passed to those of younger generations.

If Elgar struggled for decades to make his mark, the lasting success of his eventual breakthrough was inspirational to younger English composers for whom he was living proof that international recognition could come to English music. Like Elgar, Frank Bridge, born in Brighton in 1879, was an accomplished string-player. By 1904 he had completed his studies at the Royal College of Music under Stanford and had begun to make a reputation as a very fine chamber-musician and conductor (later, Sir Henry Wood always turned to Bridge to deputize for him if he was indisposed). But as a composer Bridge’s early reputation was made by his chamber music.

At the turn of the century, W W Cobbett (1847–1937), a chamber-music enthusiast and successful businessman, endowed a competition for British chamber music. He stipulated that the works should be in one movement, but that composers should ‘write what they like—in any shape—as long as it was a shape’. He also stipulated that the word ‘Phantasy’ should appear in the title, after the ‘Fantasias’ of Tudor masters.

Frank Bridge entered a Phantasy String Quartet for Cobbett’s 1905 competition. It failed to win a prize, but his second Phantasy, a Piano Trio, took first prize in 1907. By this time Bridge had written much for string quartet. Apart from the Phantasy Quartet there is an earlier Scherzo Phantastick and a String Quartet in B flat major, both from 1901, three Novelletten from 1904, his First String Quartet in E minor, called the ‘Bologna’ after its success at an international competition in that city, and the Three Idylls. Both the E minor Quartet and the Idylls were composed in 1906.

The Three Idylls mark the epitome of Bridge’s early salon style, yet are rather more than salon music. The first, a slow study in C sharp minor which has a memorable relationship with the relative major—a fascinating juxtaposition that applies, in varying degrees, to each of the Idylls (which suggests that the entire work can be considered a complete three-movement quartet). This is perhaps the most immediately appealing of the set, but the second, Allegretto poco lento is by far the best known, for Bridge’s only composition pupil, Benjamin Britten, took it as the theme for his Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge for string orchestra in 1937. This haunting second Idyll sometimes verges on the Delian in its half-expressed sensibility and emotion; this miniature also recalls Elgar in his most whimsical moments. The last Idyll, in C major and 2/4, Allegro con moto, opens with an upward leap on the cello, a ‘call to arms’ answered by the other instruments and leading to a fine and convincing conclusion.

The Idylls are dedicated to an Australian whom Bridge was to marry, Ethel Sinclair, and were premiered in March 1907 by the Grimson Quartet at the Bechstein Hall in London.

A decade later, at the height of the Great War, anti-German feeling in Britain had reached intolerance. King Edward’s successor, George V, changed the Royal family name from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to Windsor, and the Bechstein Hall was renamed Wigmore Hall after the street where it is situated. The summer of 1918 that had seen Elgar begin his three chamber works also saw a sixteen-year-old Oxford undergraduate, William Walton, begin his first large-scale work, a Piano Quartet, which he completed the following year. It is an astonishing composition for a sixteen-year-old, but our surprise must come from the music, not from the calendar. The score of the Piano Quartet was lost for two years; it was published in 1924 by which time the twenty-two-year-old had already made a name for himself.

Walton left Oxford, without graduating, at the end of 1920. There he had met Sacheverell Sitwell who introduced him to his gifted brother and sister, Osbert and Edith, and it was with the Sitwells that the young Walton went to live in London, a world away from the provincial Oldham in Lancashire where he was born. Apart from the Piano Quartet Walton had by this time composed merely three songs, a brief choral piece, an organ prelude and a two-movement string quartet. In London he began to secure hearings for his music, most importantly for this early string quartet, given in March 1921 by the London Contemporary Music Centre. Walton then revised it, adding a middle movement by November 1922 when the score was submitted to the first International Society for Contemporary Music Festival in Salzburg in 1923. The jury of Ernest Ansermet, André Caplet, Hermann Scherchen and Egon Wellesz, as the chairman Edward Dent wrote, ‘read scores of chamber music all day long. Suddenly Scherchen burst out excitedly, “Who is this Walton?”’ The Quartet was chosen unanimously.

This success for the twenty-year-old Walton was remarkable not because of his youth but because he could play no instrument, not even the piano, at all well. Unlike Elgar or Bridge, he had no practical experience of chamber music-making; conservative critics who heard the Quartet in London prior to Salzburg, as Dent recalled, ‘thought it quite unrepresentative of British music, and asked why a work of Elgar had not been chosen’. The score impressed Alban Berg, who took Walton to meet Schoenberg, but Walton withdrew the Quartet and it was not heard again until after his death.

The post-war years saw the growing use of small ensembles by composers. In 1912 Schoenberg had led the way with Pierrot Lunaire for reciter and five instruments, which gained some notoriety. The British premiere took place in London in 1922, conducted by Darius Milhaud, and the same year saw the appearance of Walton’s first success, a setting—by way of parody of Pierrot—of a group of Edith Sitwell’s poems: Façade, ‘an entertainment’ for reciter and instrumental ensemble.

During the next twenty-five years Walton became a world figure through only a handful of orchestral and choral works, each equally distinctive: the overture Portsmouth Point, the Sinfonia Concertante for piano and orchestra, concertos for viola and for violin, Belshazzar’s Feast and the First Symphony. At the Coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in 1937, Walton’s Crown Imperial march was ‘public’ music of a type known from Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance. (Interestingly, Frank Bridge wrote marches for the Coronations of Edward VII and George V, but the genre was alien to him.) During World War II Walton composed music for patriotic films and broadcasts, echoing Elgar’s wartime compositions of a generation earlier; also like Elgar, it was to the personal world of chamber music that Walton turned once hostilities were over, in his String Quartet in A minor, completed in 1947, and his Violin Sonata of 1949.

A reputation made by so few works implies a fastidious and self-critical artist. The A minor Quartet had germinated in Walton’s mind since 1939 when the BBC commissioned it; by the end of 1944 he was hard at work on the score which was at last ready for the first performance, a broadcast on the BBC’s then-new Third Programme in May 1947. The public premiere took place the next day. Both performances were by the Blech Quartet. The first performance had been announced for the Wigmore Hall the previous February, but the Quartet was not ready in time.

The first movement has claim to be Walton’s most perfect and original sonata structure, exhibiting a cohesive variety of invention that is immensely resourceful. The cohesion is the clarity of the music, wholly exceptional in immediate post-Second World War art, yet containing a wide range of varied material that is nonetheless organic throughout. The ‘classical’ string-quartet genre caused Walton to adopt ‘classical’ forms, but in ways that are new. We have a double exposition of theme and counterpoint, of lyrical first and gritty second subjects, which is repeated; there then follows a third theme of much rhythmic flexibility, derived from the first and second subjects. The development faces classical precepts head on, nothing less than a four-part fugue on a theme derived from first and second subjects, which flows into a new development, a freer fantasia that modulates beautifully towards the recapitulation, where first and second subjects are compressed. The arrival of the third theme, largely omitted in the development, sets off an original ‘developmental recapitulation’ before the extended coda muses gently on the opening ideas, spaciously and gently arriving at A minor.

The Scherzo (Presto) is placed second, as in the First Symphony, and has a tensile brilliance in contrast to the preceding Allegro, but whose quicksilver ending almost catches us by surprise. The Lento is one of Walton’s finest slow movements—relaxed, yet powerful and hauntingly beautiful, bringing a new character to his instrumental writing. The finale is an outpouring of concentrated energy, reinforcing A minor after the balm of F major in the slow movement, and the Phrygian E (a variant of the classical dominant) of the Scherzo. Structurally it is a rondo which recalls elements from the earlier movements in its varied episodes, which are in turn engulfed in the headlong rush to the breathless final bars.

Robert Matthew-Walker © 1994

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