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Elgar’s only string quartet, a masterpiece of the chamber music repertoire premiered in 1918, is well established. That of his contemporary Delius, dating from a year earlier, is more of a rarity. The composer was discontented with his first (three-movement) attempt and reworked the opening movement and the wistful “Late Swallows” slow movement. Both versions are included here, each characterised by boundless melody, unexpected major-minor shifts and rhythmic buoyancy. The Villiers Quartet, formed in 2011 and specialists in English music (among other things; they are an inquisitive ensemble), play the Delius with zest and passion. Their Elgar, too, is febrile and bold. Fresh playing all round, at budget price.
Two string quartets written by major British composers during the dark years of World War I are the focus of the latest Naxos disc from the young Villiers Quartet and, like their previous releases of works by Robert Still and Peter Racine Fricker, they provide rich food for thought.
Frederick Delius originally composed his String Quartet in E minor as a three-movement work in spring 1916, and it was premiered in that form the following November. However, he was dissatisfied with the piece, and the following year substantially revised it, reworking the outer movements, adding a second-movement scherzo, and completely recomposing the Late Swallows second movement. This became the work’s published form, opening proceedings here, but, thanks to some musicological detective work by Daniel Grimley, the Villiers Quartet also include the original versions of the opening movement and the Late Swallows slow movement. It is particularly fascinating to hear the latter in its earlier form, with its opening first violin flourish and poignant middle section.
The Villiers Quartet play the whole work as to the manner born, bringing out the music’s febrile flair, its nods to French Impressionism and even Schoenbergian Expressionism. They bring out all the repressed passion, too, in the extraordinary homophonic eruptions that twice explode during the course of the first movement, but in the 1917 second movement they are fleet and graceful, and in the Late Swallows movement they capture the mysterious wistfulness of the central episode in both its versions. Throughout, rhythms are buoyant, intonation faultless and the alert playing has flashes of keen wit. If you’re looking for a version of the Delius Quartet for your library, this is now a clear front runner for a work that has been undeservedly neglected.
Elgar’s three-movement E minor String Quartet is one of three chamber works he wrote in the second half of 1918 after recuperating from a nervous breakdown brought on in the previous year by news of the war. These were very different works from the patriotic morale-boosters he had written in the conflict’s earlier stages, taking refuge in ‘absolute’ music but also full of passion alongside nobility. The Villiers Quartet bring out these qualities but also, thanks to the stereo separation of an immersive recording (at St Silas Church, Pentonville), the sheer richness of the scoring, which at times brings to mind the contemporaneous Cello Concerto. The intermezzo-like Piacevole central movement, with its quotation of the Chanson de Matin, was a favourite of Elgar’s wife, Alice, and it was played at her funeral in 1920, the year following the Quartet’s premiere. Here it receives a performance of gentle delicacy with moments of supreme radiance, while the outer movements are confident and bold, a testament to Elgar’s capacity for renewal.
Anyone looking for a British alternative to the ubiquitous Debussy-Ravel coupling would do well to acquire this disc, which adds yet another feather to the Villiers’ cap, as well as providing unusual added value in the form of the recovered early version of the Delius. There are helpfully detailed notes on both works by Daniel Grimley, and the presentation is attractive, complementing Michael Wight’s fine recording.
Delius and Elgar – String Quartets: The Villiers, undoubtedly one of the finest young British string quartets to have emerged in recent years, have an in-born feel for the music of Delius, and here breathe life into a gorgeous score that is seldom heard in the concert hall. Though composed in France in the midst of the First World War, it is by nature a pastoral work, the Villiers lavishing playing of exquisite beauty. By contrast Elgar was by nature an outgoing character, though he had suffered a nervous breakdown during the war, and his quartet was full of yearning for times that were long past, and it ends in deep sadness.In every way this is a superb release in Naxos’s excellent recording. By David Denton
With impeccable timing, the Villiers Quartet have captured the current mood of edgy, querulous uncertainty with their release of the three magnificently bracing string quartets of Peter Racine Fricker (1920-90). Though separated by several years, each is distinctly in Fricker’s unique voice, never quite atonal; always charged with a vital, questing energy. No 3 from 1976 is the most spectacular, with a tautly syncopated allegro feroce, a Shostakovich-like adagio and a disquieting allegro inquieto. The playing of this highly talented quartet, champions of British music, is superb throughout and augurs well for their forthcoming release of Delius and Elgar.
Any Bartók or Shostakovich aficionado should enjoy getting to grips with the quartets of Peter Racine Fricker (1920–90), which here receive magnificently assured, mostly premiere recordings. The Second was commissioned by the Amadeus Quartet and recorded in 1953, four years after the ensemble and its audiences had been impressed by Fricker’s extended single-movement First Quartet.
The influence of Bartók – through Fricker’s teacher Mátyás Seiber – is most palpably but productively digested in the Second Quartet, from its cogently discursive first movement through a scherzo spiked with nocturnal pizzicatos to a concluding Adagio that deserves the inquieto marking given to other movements in the cycle. The Third dates from 1976, once Fricker had settled happily in California. Despite his declared revival of interest in the genre thanks to Elliott Carter’s Third Quartet, the work doesn’t notably develop or advance from the Second until a variation finale, which invests Webernian serial procedures with infectiously vernacular vigour.
This is demanding music, and the Villiers Quartet has done well for reviving it with such immersive mastery that the occasionally grey, cardboard quality of the melodic material is coloured and corrugated into quirky, restlessly compelling structures. The London church acoustic lends bloom and a sense of space to Fricker’s never-quite-atonal harmonies without occluding them.