Movement 1: Allegramente
Movement 2: Allegro scherzando
Movement 3: Andante tranquillo
Movement 4: Allegro molto
Given its model, it is not surprising that the shadow of Howells is present in the work, particularly in the first movement. Ravel’s influence is apparent too, as is Stravinsky’s in the rhythmic drive found in both the scherzo and finale, a feature that was to become a hallmark of Walton’s mature style. Another aspect of the quartet that was to be a characteristic of the mature composer is the manner in which Walton develops his thematic ideas by a process of constant evolution, rather than within the confines of a ‘development’ section.
The first movement (Allegramente) is cast in a regular sonata form, opening with the violin, accompanied by a cello drone, playing a gentle modal melody clearly imbued with the spirit of English folk music. Of crucial thematic importance are the notes and rhythmic pattern of the second bar, which act as a germ recurring throughout the work. By contrast the piano has a dramatic, staccato downward phrase which leads to a fortissimo repeat of the violin tune. The piano also announces the flowing second subject in octaves. Fragments from the themes are submitted to Walton’s ongoing transformation process in the short development section. In the coda the music quietens to leave just a ghost of the opening.
The exuberant, playful scherzo is created from four elements: the accentuated rhythmic fragments and the teasing cross-rhythms of the opening; a swaying piano tune; a fugato for the strings alone (the notes of which are derived from the Allegramente’s opening theme); and a proud tune, introduced by the piano, which might be summed up as Elgar crossed with Howells.
In the background of the Andante tranquillo Ravel looms large. Indeed, Walton’s friend, the pianist Angus Morrison, pointed out that the main theme, which is shared between strings and piano, bears an uncanny resemblance to ‘Le martin-pêcheur’ from the former’s Histoires naturelles. The middle section is ushered in by doleful piano chords and harmonics from the violin and leads to an extended viola solo. Briefly the music becomes more agitated, then calms to present a barren landscape in which cello and viola play sombre allusions to the Allegramente’s opening theme, alternating with a dark chorale-like passage for the piano. A pianissimo violin solo brings relief to the oppressive mood as the music strengthens and surges to the movement’s climax and a return of the opening idea.
The last movement is a sonata rondo that abounds with syncopated energy. Incisive off-beat quavers from the strings, and a piano plunge downwards set it in motion followed by the swaggering main tune characterised by repeated notes. Typically, a tiny fragment from it is singled out for use from here on. A flowing cello melody is the basis for the first episode and a fugato forms the second, itself derived from the rondo tune. Later the rondo theme is heard at its most vivacious in a passage that brings Petrushka to mind. Towards the end the music stills; there is a brief recall of the opening of the quartet, before the tempo picks up and the work is whirled to an exhilarating conclusion.
from notes by Andrew Burn © 2002