Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Frederick Delius & Edward Elgar's String Quartets on NAXOS

For listeners used to Frederick Delius’ potboilers such as On hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring, The Walk to the Paradise Garden and Summer Night on the River, the change in style made by the composer during the First World War could be surprising. During this period, he turned his mind to ‘classical’ forms and produced a Concerto for violin, one for violin and cello, a Cello Sonata and the present String Quartet.

Delius had experimented with string quartet form in 1888 and later in 1892-3: neither of these works have survived, save in fragments. There may be evidence of a third example.  It is not the forum to examine the ‘textual’ history of the present E minor quartet, save in outline. The original version of this work had only three movements (first, third and fourth) and was dated ‘Spring 1916’. It was premiered at the Aeolian Hall, London on 17 November 1916 by the London String Quartet. 
Unsatisfied with the quartet, Delius added an extra movement (the second, ‘scherzo’, in the final recension). This was based on music culled from his earlier (1888) quartet.  He also revised the first and last movements as well as rewriting ‘Late Swallows’.

The first four tracks on this CD present the Quartet in its received, i.e. published form. The four movements are: 1. With animation, 2. Quick and lightly, 3. Late Swallows (Slow and wistfully) and 4. Very quick and vigorously.
The first movement is impressionistic, with rapidly changing harmonies and the continual development of brief melodic fragments. It is enchanting in its effect. The ‘scherzo’ is like ‘a Mendelssohnian nocturne, whose gossamer-like threads are spun rapidly across the ensemble with an engagingly playful sense of rhythmic asymmetry.’ This is balanced by a wistful song-like tune in the ‘trio’.  ‘Late Swallows’ has been described by Eric Fenby as ‘a beautiful autumnal soliloquy in sound…conjured up from thoughts of the swallows darting to and fro from the eaves of the studios in Grez.’ Frederick and Jelka Delius had returned to their home in January 1915, after having been evacuated from the village earlier in the war. Several critics have surmised that the final movement is of poorer quality than the first three: contrariwise, it is possible to consider that it provides a vigorous contrast to the pensive ‘swallow’ music. 

The ‘added-value’ of this CD is the two movements from the original version of the String Quartet, realised by Daniel Grimley. The opening movement has been ‘reassembled’ from sketches and an incomplete set of string parts.  Differences to note include the more robust and concentrated scoring, which I found equally satisfying to the ‘received version’. The original ‘Late Swallows’ appears to be virtually a ‘new’ Delian work. The opening recalls ‘larks ascending’ and ‘moorland meditations’, and the middle section surely nods to Mahler. It is a rare and beautiful discovery that makes the disc cheap at twice the price! The revisions to the finale have not been included in this recording as these are not perceived to be significant.
The Villiers Quartet play Delius’s String Quartet and the additional movements with magical and nuanced effect.

We are on safer historical ground with the String Quartet in E minor, op.83 (1918) by Edward Elgar. Yet even here, the composer had moved away from the certainties of the works composed in the Victorian and Edwardian years. And, after a string of patriotic works devised during the Great War, it is instructive to see the him compose a series of ‘absolute’ works including the Violin Sonata in E minor, op.82, the Piano Quartet in A minor, op.84, the present Quartet and the more ambitious and ubiquitous Cello Concerto in E minor, op.85.

The Quartet and the Piano Quintet in A minor (1918-19) were completed whilst Edward and his wife Alice were renting Brinkwells, a cottage close to Fittleworth, Sussex. It was hidden in deep woodland.  Elgar was coming to terms with the fact musical style had moved on: no longer was he one of Europe’s ‘advanced’ composers. The music of Stravinsky, Ravel and Schoenberg was beginning to dominate the concert hall and recital room.
In a previous review of this work (Hyperion CDA67857) I wrote that Elgar ‘…seems to be in search of something intangible: it may well be a lost muse or an attempt at finding an ‘explanation’ for some event in the past.’ It is a view I still hold.
The three movements of this quartet are hugely contrasting, yet there is also a strong sense of underlying unity. The first movement is diverse in its deployment of emotion.  There is a balance between ‘austerity’ and ‘nostalgia.’ The second movement, ‘Piacevole [agreeable, pleasant] (poco andante)’ is reflective and introspective, maybe summing up the composers concerns about his wife’s frailness, his ‘outdated’ music and the passing of the security of the Edwardian age. It was one of Alice’s favourite works, and was played at her funeral in 1920. This movement has been described as an ‘intermezzo’, however I feel that this music explores much deeper sentiments.
The finale opens with an uneasy march-like theme which is followed by the more relaxed second subject, signed to be played ‘dolce.’ The dynamism of this movement is never in doubt. The spectacular coda, ‘con fuoco’ (with fire) is quite simply stunning. It brings this great string quartet to a breathless conclusion.  The liner notes sum up the last bars well: there is no time left for retrospection, merely the gruff slamming of the door.’
Elgar’s String Quartet was given its first public performance at the Wigmore Hall, London on 21 May 1919,

Both works have been recorded several times by a variety of prominent ensembles (Britten String Quartet, London String Quartet etc.). The present disc is sympathetically played, with the Villiers Quartet providing a sensitive and learned reading of both works. 
The liner notes by Daniel Grimley are excellent and provide a detailed background and analysis of the Delius and Elgar Quartets.
As noted above, the discovery here is the early version of ‘Late Swallows.’ It deserves its own unique place in the quartet repertoire. 

Track Listing:
Frederick DELIUS (1862-1934) String Quartet in E minor (1917)
Two Movements from the original version (1916/2016) (reassembled by Daniel GRIMLEY)
Edward ELGAR (1857-1934) String Quartet in E minor, op.83 (1918) Villiers Quartet: James Dickenson (violin), Tamaki Higashi (violin), Carmen Flores (viola) and Nicholas Stringfellow (cello)
NAXOS 8.573586 

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