String Quartet No.3 in G Major (1878) String Quintet in E-Flat Major (1884; rev. 1896/1902)
The Bridge Quartet: Colin Twigg (violin) Catherine Schofield (violin) Michael Schofield (viola) Lucy Wilding (cello) Robert Gibbs (viola, Quintet)
The story of the genesis and the re-discovery of Hubert Parry’s String Quartet No.3 is a delight. After rehearsals during February 1880, the work was premièred at 12 Orme Square (the home of Edward Dannreuther) on 26th February. It was programmed alongside works by Schumann, Wagner, Beethoven and the Italian Giovanni Sgambati. Parry was largely happy with the performance. The liner notes suggest that there were no subsequent performances in the composer’s lifetime. Alas, the unpublished holograph was mixed up with some documents belonging to Gerald Finzi. Fortunately, it was identified by Philip Thomas and Stephen Banfield in 1992. It was duly broadcast by the Almeira Quartet and was given at a student’s recital at the Royal Academy of Music. The present disc is the works first ‘commercial’ recording.
The Quartet in in four movements. I found the general mood of this work a little unsettling – which probably reflects the composer’s intention. Michael Allis refers to the ‘tonal instability’ of the opening movement. There is a good balance between the bustling opening theme and a ‘hymn like idea’ and a delightful cantabile tune. The second movement, ‘andante’ opens with a charming melody accompanied by a gentle pizzicato. Later, the mood changes to darker hues and then more dramatic music. The third movement is the one that took me by surprise. So far the music has been relatively restrained and cerebral, however the ‘death’s head scherzo’ has ‘something of the night’ in it – at least in the ‘minuet’ section. This is ‘ghostly music’ that is genuinely scary. The ‘trio’ is a little bit more positive – but this is soon pushed out of the way by a reprise of the sinister music. This is a hugely impressive and inspired ‘scherzo’ by an Englishman that has lain hidden for a century. The CD is is worth the price for this movement alone. The final ‘rondo,’ an ‘allegro moderato’ restores some normality to the work. This is not straightforward music: there are many twists and turns before the final return of the main themes. There is a strong sense of purpose and a unity of musical material that makes this an extremely satisfying and enjoyable String Quartet.
Michael Allis notes that the ‘catalyst’ for the String Quintet in E flat major was ‘probably’ a performance of Brahms String Quintet in F major, which was given at a Monday ‘Pops’ concert in March 1883. Parry’s work was completed the following year and was premièred at Dannreuther’s concert on 18 March 1884. Apparently it did not go too well. The first fiddle was ‘not strong enough to lead the thing’ and the cellist was ‘not quite in tune.’ After a rejection from Joachim, who felt the the slow movement was too long, the work was revived and published in 1909. It is not stated how the quintet fared, but I guess that it quickly dropped out of the repertoire.
The Quintet opens with a gorgeous expressive tune that seems to prefigure Elgar. There is a transition to another romantic tune. Parry experiments with a large variety of string textures that leads to new possibilities at every bar. It is a finely developed ‘sonata’ form that perfectly balances the logical with the inspired. It is positive music that is tinged with regret, constantly evolving and pushing forward towards a personal resolution. I found this movement both instructive and moving. The ‘scherzo’ is placed second and is played ‘allegro molto.’ Unlike the ‘scherzo’ in the String Quartet this is spirited music – I would not suggest that it is without a care in the world; there are no demons to exorcise here. Parry does bring a little bit of harmonic bite into the ‘trio’ section making use of ‘chromatic sequences’ and the ‘diabolic tri-tone’ – which was a feature of the earlier work.
I baulk at saying that Parry sounds like Elgar – or vice versa, yet one cannot listen to the heart-achingly beautiful ‘andante sostenuto’ without making some analogous comparisons. There is a ‘sospiro’ like atmosphere about this work that suggests the end of an era or a sense of loss. The viola is especially prominent in this movement. Unsurprisingly, the mood changes in the final movement. Things become much more easy-going: the music is signed ‘vivace’ – lively. In fact this sense of liveliness becomes ‘con fuoco’ – with fire towards the end. In the round, this is an extremely satisfying work that explores a wide range of emotion and reflects near technical perfection.
Parry’s chamber music is slowly being recognized by record companies. There are currently recordings of the Violin and Cello Sonatas, the fine Piano Trios, some pieces for violin and piano and the Nonet.
This present CD will appeal to two groups of people. Firstly there are the Parry enthusiasts (myself included) who will grab the opportunity at possessing two first class pieces of chamber music from the composer’s early period. They will find two works that are an absolute delight to listen to. The second group of listeners may well be those attracted to British chamber music in general and are looking for avenues of exploration from a time when England was deemed to be a ‘land without music. This group will find in these pieces considerable encouragement to realise that worthy music of this calibre was being composed in the 1870s and 80s.
It seems largely redundant to point out that the Bridge String Quartet play these two works with great sensitivity and poise. There is clarity of texture that reveals the high workmanship of the composer. These are moving and stimulating performances that exploit Parry’s intentions to a high degree. These works are given the best possible opportunity to establish themselves in the repertoire.
The liner notes are impressive. There is a ‘personal tribute’ from Hubert Parry great grand-daughter Laura Ponsonby which reminds the reader of a few of the myths and legends of the composer. I appreciated her remark about a missing musical score –‘Don’t say it is lost, but rather it’s not yet been found.’ There is a shore ‘bio’ of the composer by Jeremy Dibble, extracted from his important study of the composer C. Hubert Parry: His Life and Music (1992). The ‘programme notes’ by the Parry scholar Michael Allis are a comprehensive as one could wish. Finally the gorgeous cover picture of Highham Court Church will surely encourage some music lovers to buy this disc ‘on spec’ – they will not be disappointed.
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.