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CLASSICAL  June 2006

CLASSICAL June 2006

Subject:

Two Brahmsian Quartets from an Unlikely Composer

From:

Scott Morrison <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Fri, 23 Jun 2006 14:39:40 -0400

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (80 lines)

Ireland: String Quartets Nos. 1 & 2; The Holy Boy
Maggini Quartet
Naxos 8.557777

http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/B000FGGKHG/classicalnetA/

5/5 stars

The String Quartets Brahms Didn't Write

I can still recall being gobsmacked the first time I heard any of John
Ireland's music.  That was an LP of his 1930 Piano Concerto recorded by
Colin Horsley with the Royal Philharmonic under Sir Basil Cameron.  It
immediately became a piece I played over and over.  Through the years I
had heard other things from Ireland's relatively small output, but I had
never heard the present works.  The two string quartets recorded here
are from the very young John Ireland (1879-1962) who wrote the First
when he was eighteen, the Second at nineteen.  He was very much in thrall
to Brahms at that time and presented the First to the man he wanted to
study composition under, Charles Villiers Stanford at the Royal College
of Music.  Stanford rejected the work -- 'dull as dishwater' -- and the
student, later relenting at the instigation of the RCM's Director, Hubert
Parry.  I can't for the life of me find why Stanford would have criticized
this First Quartet.  It brims with life and has craft to spare.  It
doesn't sound at all like the later Ireland who a few years later became
much influenced by the French impressionists and has indeed been described
as an 'English impressionist.' No, these works are Brahmsian in tone and
construction.  The only thing missing is Hungarian gypsy music; in its
place one hears typical English 6/8 lyricism but it is not by any stretch
of the imagination 'English pastoral' music.  As I listened to these
works I was astounded to think they were the work of a teenager.  As far
as I can tell there isn't a misstep anywhere in all eight of the quartets'
movements.

Quartet No. 1 begins with a broadly extroverted first movement, a
sonata allegro whose themes are memorable and expertly manipulated.
Most memorable is a passage in the development section given over to the
violas singing the first theme over a gently rocking 3/4 accompaniment.
II is a restless scherzo that scurries along and becomes more and more
dramatic and even portentous. III, andante moderato, is a hymnic treatment
of a noble melody that would have done Schubert proud. IV, the most
obviously Brahmsian of the four movements, is another sonata-allegro
making extensive use of fugato elements in its development before coming
to a smashing conclusion in a joyous coda. This quartet is, as I've said,
an amazing product to come out of an essentially autodidactic
eighteen-year-old's brain.

Track 5, placed in between the two quartets, is Ireland's quartet
arrangement of one of his most familiar pieces, 'The Holy Boy,' a simply
lovely lyrical effusion originally one of his 'Four Preludes' for piano,
and subsequently arranged for all manner of instruments and voices.

Quartet No. 2, written six months after he concluded No. 1, is also
in four movements. The booklet note writer, Andrew Burn, comments that
it is noticeable how much more assured Ireland's writing has become in
the interval. Frankly, I can't see that it is all that much more assured,
the reason being that I'm still astounded at the assurance evidenced in
the First Quartet. Be that as it may, the Second is if anything more
Brahmsian than the First. One hears hemiolas, ignored bar lines, tenor
register thirds and sixths, descending sequences -- all typical of
Brahms's style. More important, though, is that the music is convincing
on its own terms.  II, called 'Nocturne', begins with the first violin
singing a poignant melody over muted strings. Later it, too, is muted
in a misterioso agitated section before the movement returns to its
serene first section, this time somewhat concentrated. Lovely. The
Scherzo, placed third this time, is Beethovenian in its onrush and its
bumptious rhythms, all mitigated by a songful trio. The Finale is a
complex ten-minute movement that is essentially a Brahmsian (again!)
theme-and-variations with contrasting moods -- each instrument gets
its moment in the spotlight -- leading to a victorious vivace ending.

The Maggini Quartet, justly lauded for its recent series of recordings
of the knotty quartets written for it by the current Master of the Queen's
Music, Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, shows itself here to the master of late
romantic quartets written one hundred years earlier.  They are given
life-like sound and excellent engineering and production values.

TT=57:30

Scott Morrison

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