Tuesday, 7 June 2011

John Blackwood McEwen: String Quartet No.7 'Threnody'

The Quartet for Strings No.7 in Eb was written in 1916. Obviously this was in the middle of the First World War. It is hardly surprising that this work was subtitled 'Threnody'. This is a song of lamentation.
This quartet is written in four movements -three of them being slow. The work opens with a very dark and lugubrious Lento. However there are some moments of warmth in this movement. With increasing complexity it builds up to a climax which resolves it self into a restatement of the opening theme. This is a very satisfying opening movement, shewing the composer's genius to the full.
The short second movement is full of string effects. The programme notes describe them as "late Elgarian arpeggios and motoric figures." All to soon we are in the Allegro Moto. There is no doubt that this is the heart of the work. Here we have a stunning display of string writing. Tunes seem to be passed too and fro across this movement. Suddenly a gorgeous phrase is taken up, used and then seemingly cast aside. There is no doubt that this is a masterpiece of string writing. Not until Britten and Tippet do we reach such an understanding of how a string quartet works.
The last movement is a meditation the old Scottish Lament - Flowers of the Forest. This song was composed to remember the fallen at the battle of Flodden in 1513, and is a highly appropriate choice for a work written during the 'War to End all Wars.' Somehow McEwen manages to avoid any sense of the parochial or of pathos or sheer sentimentality. It is a beautiful and perfect ending to a splendid composition.

John Blackwood McEwen: String Quartet No.7 can be heard on Chandos CHAN9926

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