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Penguin Guide, January 2009

The Maggini continue their survey of British quartets with this comprehensive recording of the three Quartets of Rawsthorne, plus the work which in many ways helped to spawn them, the Theme and Variation for Two Violins of 1937. What links all these works is Rawsthorne’s obsession with variation form, very clearly demonstrated in that early Duet. The First Quartet of 1939 similarly consists of a Theme and Variations, while the Second Quartet of 1954 concludes with a variation movement, and the Third Quartet of 1965 has a Chaconne as its darkest and most intense movement. Those last two works increasingly demonstrate the influence of Bartók without disturbing the distinctive clarity of Rawsthorne’s musical idiom. Ideal performances, vividly recorded.



JFL
Ionarts, April 2007

Bartók, Shostakovich, Ligeti on tranquilizers, Reger, and even Beethoven wafted by my musical nose when listening to this tremendous disc of Alan Rawsthorne’s String Quartets with the Maggini Quartet. If you don’t like the most difficult of those just mentioned composers, don’t bother with this release. But if you do, you’ll be surprised how easy these works are on the ear; how they please despite plenty dissonance and stress. They are all in some way built around themes and variations – and the disc includes the so-titled work for two violins as well. It’s an hour of the very highest quality 20th century chamber music (the quartets date from 1939, 54, and 64 – I like them all; the third most), and easily the happiest string quartet discovery for me since happening upon the Bloch quartets or Villa-Lobos’ works in that genre. Once this disc was in my player, I listened through the whole thing in one sitting. Trice. The Maggini Quartet plays up to the same high standards that anyone who knows their other discs for Naxos has already come to expect. To those who think they might like this (and you know who you are), this is most warmly recommended!



Fine
American Record Guide, April 2007

Alan Rawsthorne (1905-71) was a British film composer who wrote highly organized chamber music. His 1937 Theme and Variations for two violins is full of contrasts, counterpoint and interesting musical ideas. Some of the counterpoint reminds me of Hindemith, and some of the harmonic writing reminds me of Bartok. Rawsthorne must have enjoyed writing variations. His first string quartet from 1939 is made entirely of a theme and six variations. Rawsthorne uses all kinds of interesting counterpoint as the piece makes its way from one variation to the next. The second quartet, from 1954, uses mostly the same kinds of voicing and colors as the first quartet, and also incorporates a theme and variations in IV, but these variations are more abstract than the earlier sets. The third quartet, from 1965, has an opening movement that functions a bit like a theme and variations because all of its material seems to be derived from the opening thematic material. All the pieces are given excellent readings by the Maggini Quartet.



Colin Anderson
Fanfare, February 2007

Naxos has been doing Alan Rawsthome (1905-1971) proud. An English composer who might have become a dentist, and who studied the piano with Egon Petri in Poland and Germany, Rawsthome's music is gritty, concentrated, and very communicative in its edge.

The two violinists of the Maggini Quartet give a very assured account of Theme and Variations (1937), spellbinding music of wide range: lyrical, intense, fiery, and mercurial. Rawsthorne's String Quartet No. 1 (1939) is also cast as a theme and variations; once more this is music that compels, is beautifully worked out, and is compact while spawning much over its 10 minutes.

The other quartets, from 1954 and 1965, are just as concise, in four and three movements, respectively-at least, Naxos supplies three cue points for No.3-although the composer himself informs us that No.3 is in "two main sections, each of these being divided into several subsections." Rawsthorne's introductions, presumably written for the first performances of each work, are helpfully reproduced in Naxos's booklet. Both works dig deep into emotional states as well as being formally attractive. There's real heart, here, and genuine craftsmanship, searching and voluble, the musical language extended as each work is reached in terms of the composer's chronology while retaining a passionate outreach for the listener to climb aboard. If I suggest that admirers of Bartok and Hindemith will be on home ground here, I also want to stress that Rawsthorne is very much his own man, expressing himself deeply through music.

Wonderfully well played by the Maggini Quartet, and rendered with a conviction that suggests Rawsthorne's music is standard repertoire for these musicians, this is an outstanding release that is further blessed by sound that is tangible and truthful. Please don't miss what I believe to be really significant pieces.



Janet Banks
The Strad, January 2007

Rawsthorne was not a string player, and these quartets sound as if they were conceived for four musical lines rather than for four stringed instruments. It's rare for them to use any techniques more adventurous than pizzicato, resulting in less interesting textures than in, say, Bartók or Shostakovich. Bartók's last quartet was premiered the same year Rawsthorne wrote his First - 1939 - and there's much in the two earliest works on the disc that brings the Hungarian's string music to mind. The Maggini approaches Quartet no. 1, a theme with six variations, with a light and sensitive touch. Leader Laurence Jackson makes the most of the expressive intervals in the Andante appassionato, while in Variation no. 4 (Adagio, poco misterioso) cellist Michal Kaznowski's melody is held down by tense, shimmering discords high in the upper strings, enhanced by the disc's bright, resonant recorded sound.

With Quartets nos. 2 and 3 Rawsthorne's language becomes denser - this is pure, concentrated, unremittingly serious music, not a gimmick in sight. The four instruments are now equal protagonists and the mood more cerebral.

The Theme and Variations for two violins of 1937, the work that really launched Rawsthorne as a composer, is the most engaging piece on the disc. Jackson and David Angel, natural musical partners after their twelve years with the Maggini, demonstrate impressive ensemble and intricate interplay in variations such as the 'Scherzetto'. There's some moving playing in the 'Notturno' of the expressive melody over sul ponticello scrubbing, and the 'Ostinato' is exciting stuff.



Bob McQuiston
Classical Lost and Found, December 2006

The word succinct best describes the music of Alan Rawsthorne (1905-1971) on this release. There isn't a wasted note in these no-nonsense pieces and they bear repeated listening to decipher all their intricacies. The first quartet is atypical because it consists of a single, theme and variations movement that lasts only about ten minutes. It begins with a wistfully tentative motif, which is subjected to six transformations. They are of contrasting mood with the first quite agitated and the rest ranging from pensive to mercurial at the very end. The construction like in all of Rawsthorne’s compositions is tightly-knit. The second quartet is in the standard four movements and more austere than its predecessor. It begins insistently with an agitated melody that is developed most effectively. An impassioned allegro and misty allegretto follow and the work concludes with another outstanding theme and variations. The third quartet is the most rigorous of all and shows what a master musical craftsman this composer was. It's in three movements and the central one, which is a chaconne, is a tiny masterpiece unto itself. In addition to these works, the program opens with a theme and variations for two violins. An early opus, this is some of the most incisively inventive music you could ever hope to hear for two fiddlers, and hints at what would follow in the quartets. Once more the members of the Maggini Quartet demonstrate that when it comes to late romantic/early modern English chamber music of this type they have few peers. The recorded sound may be a bit dry, but if anything that helps to elucidate these rigorous scores.



Nigel Simeone
International Record Review, December 2006

The Maggini Quartet continue their invaluable survey of British string quartets for Naxos with a disc of Alan Rawsthorne's three numbered quartets and the Theme and Variations for two violins. What makes this series so worthwhile is not only the coverage of the repertoire but the superb standard of the playing - combining real commitment with technical mastery. This kind of dedicated advocacy makes a strong case for Rawsthorne's music, which can, in lesser hands, seem unduly austere. The ascetic qualities in Rawsthorne are an important part of his individuality, but so too is the slightly edgy lyricism that shines through at times.

The First String Quartet is a theme and variations, or at least it is now. It began life as a two-movement work, but the manuscript was lost in the post when war broke out in 1939 and Rawsthorne decided the single movement stood up well in its own right. Certainly, this ten-minute piece benefits from its conciseness and tight organization. The Second Quartet, given its premiere at the Cheltenham Festival by the Griller Quartet in 1954-, is a work whose mood darkens as the last movement is reached, ending with a memorably bleak soundscape. The Third Quartet was composed in 1965. It gets off to an athletic start, the astringent writing producing music that generates a good deal of motive power, even if it's not immediately endearing.

There is another recording of these three quartets (and an early unpublished one) by the Flesch Quartet on ASV: a viable alternative but not quite as consistently impressive as this new Maggini release. The Naxos disc opens with the Theme and Variations for two violins, one of Rawsthorne's early successes and, at 15 minutes, much more than a filler. If you admire Rawsthorne, then I imagine this disc will be an automatic purchase. I hope others may be tempted to explore this music too, especially as it's so well played and recorded here. The notes include commentaries on the Second and Third Quartets by the composer himself.



Paul_Cook
MusicWeb International, December 2006

Naxos – the little label that could – continues its successful series of the music of British composer Alan Rawsthorne. Here was a composer who unflinchingly dove headlong into serialism and atonality at a time when most composers of his generation were still noodling with Romanticism, composers such as Vaughan Williams, Delius and Bax. Not to besmirch these composers and their extraordinary contributions to 20th century music, Alan Rawsthorne’s lodestar has always been more Germanic and European than anything particularly British. He is a clear student of Schoenberg, Berg, and Bartok, particularly of the string quartets. Rawsthorne’s music is a series of carefully stated variations devoid of tonality worked through with logic rather than the usual braided harmonies and melodic structures – all the normal traits found in Romanticism.

The music gathered here isn’t strictly serial, though it has an internal logic of its own and seems to go out of its way to avoid anything resembling a memorable tune; think of the tunes in the quartets of Shostakovich and you’ll know what I mean. Still, this music is hypnotic and deserves attention. For example, his Theme and Variations for Two Violins, Rawsthorne’s first published work, is a two-part invention, Bach-like in its austerity, but filled with all kinds of energy with an occasional waltz rhythm that will remind the listener of the same kind of dances that Shostakovich used. The variations offer each violinist a chance to carry the main argument, even to trade back and forth playfully. It’s a very dynamic work, always cogent, never acerbic – though it is resolutely atonal with rather imaginative use of double-stopping and 6/8 triplets thrown in here and there. The work never overstays its welcome and it never loses interest.

His String Quartet No. 1 is another theme-and-variation, but this time is much fuller in sonic texture. What’s here is actually a reconstruction done by the composer. The String Quartet No. 1 had its first performance in 1939 in Vienna, but part of the manuscript was lost when the war started. Rawsthorne reworked the manuscript from memory, and while the rest of the work resurfaced later on, the composer kept to the reconstructed version. Again, this is very carefully crafted, neatly articulated music; the composer is clearly in control of every melodic line in each of the work’s six variations.

His String Quartet No. 2 begins with a first movement that’s in sonata form, but is quickly abandoned for a more rhapsodic unfolding of countervailing arguments, with the cello having much less to say. Still doggedly atonal, the work’s thematic elements remain clear. Finally, the String Quartet No. 3 most definitely will remind the listener of the latter quartets of Shostakovich and of Bartok’s last two, though bereft of their romantic signatures.& Though it’s crisp and assertive – and equally intelligent – it still might put off some listeners.

I’ve referenced both Shostakovich and Bartok in this review for several reasons, not least of which is because they have the greatest string quartets of the 20th century and are probably the standard-bearers in that genre. These chamber works – though only four in number – are just as intelligent as the works of the aforementioned composers and we owe Naxos thanks for bringing them out into the sunlight. They might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but they were for me. The Maggini Quartet clearly has an affinity for this music and the recording ambience – so important to chamber music – is quite focused, allowing for both spaciousness and warmth. Rawsthorne fans will definitely want this disc and those of you interested in 20th century modernism in music – as opposed to romanticism – might want to try this as well.



Scott Cantrell
The Dallas Morning News, November 2006

RESPECT, NEGLECT: The Englishman Alan Rawsthorne (1905-1971) belonged to the same generation as Shostakovich and Copland. But, lacking their "public" voices, he's more respected – notably by other composers – than performed, even in his homeland. But Naxos has been doing a nice job of honoring his centenary with recordings. A MUSICAL EVOLUTION: Rawsthorne's three published string quartets, beautifully written and intellectually engaging, bear comparison with the 20th century's best. The First (1939) suggests the influence of neoclassicism, not least in its theme-and-variations format. The Second (1954) and Third (1965) are more liquescent, and more harmonically piquant. An isolated phrase may remind you of Shostakovich or Bartók, but Rawsthorne's voice really is his own, neither confrontational nor platitudinous. BOTTOM LINE: A fine balance of intellectual rigor and sonorous appeal, in skillful performances and first-rate recorded sound.



Andrew Achenbach
Gramophone, November 2006

Another triumphant display by those magnificent Magginis

The Maggini Quartet's tireless exploration of the British string quartet repertoire continues in fine style with this indispensable anthology devoted to Alan Rawsthorne (1905 -71). Launching proceedings are the Theme and Variations for two violins from 1937, a bracingly inventive 15-minute essay that secured Rawsthorne's reputation as a major new voice. The rigorous First Quartet of 1939 (itself pre-dated by two unpublished essays in the medium from 1933 and 1935) is also cast as a theme and variations; its economy of thought and fastidious polish will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Rawsthorne's exhilarating Symphonic Studies and piano Bagatelles completed the previous year.

Premiered by the Griller Quartet at the 1954 Cheltenham Festival, the Second Quartet again yields plentiful nourishment and stimulation for both head and heart. Written in 1965, the Third Quartet is at once the most searching and tightly organised of the three. Not a single note is wasted, while the central Chaconne manifests a distinct kinship with the brooding Sarabande slow movement from Rawsthorne's Third Symphony (1964).

We have, of course, come to expect the highest standards from the Maggini/Naxos alliance - and this new issue does not disappoint. Inquisitive readers can rest assured that the Maggini's performances are as deeply pondered as they are powerfully communicative: theirs is music-making of entrancing skill, cogent drive and tangible dedication. Boasting sound and balance of impressive realism, in addition to lucid notes by John Belcher of the Rawsthorne Trust and the composer himself, it's got to be one of my discs of the year.



Andrew Achenbach
Gramophone, November 2006

Naxos – the little label that could – continues its successful series of the music of British composer Alan Rawsthorne. Here was a composer who unflinchingly dove headlong into serialism and atonality at a time when most composers of his generation were still noodling with Romanticism, composers such as Vaughan Williams, Delius and Bax. Not to besmirch these composers and their extraordinary contributions to 20th century music, Alan Rawsthorne’s lodestar has always been more Germanic and European than anything particularly British. He is a clear student of Schoenberg, Berg, and Bartok, particularly of the string quartets. Rawsthorne’s music is a series of carefully stated variations devoid of tonality worked through with logic rather than the usual braided harmonies and melodic structures – all the normal traits found in Romanticism. The music gathered here isn’t strictly serial, though it has an internal logic of its own and seems to go out of its way to avoid anything resembling a memorable tune; think of the tunes in the quartets of Shostakovich and you’ll know what I mean. Still, this music is hypnotic and deserves attention. For example, his Theme and Variations for Two Violins, Rawsthorne’s first published work, is a two-part invention, Bach-like in its austerity, but filled with all kinds of energy with an occasional waltz rhythm that will remind the listener of the same kind of dances that Shostakovich used. The variations offer each violinist a chance to carry the main argument, even to trade back and forth playfully. It’s a very dynamic work, always cogent, never acerbic – though it is resolutely atonal with rather imaginative use of double-stopping and 6/8 triplets thrown in here and there. The work never overstays its welcome and it never loses interest. His String Quartet No. 1 is another theme-and-variation, but this time is much fuller in sonic texture. What’s here is actually a reconstruction done by the composer. The String Quartet No. 1 had its first performance in 1939 in Vienna, but part of the manuscript was lost when the war started. Rawsthorne reworked the manuscript from memory, and while the rest of the work resurfaced later on, the composer kept to the reconstructed version. Again, this is very carefully crafted, neatly articulated music; the composer is clearly in control of every melodic line in each of the work’s six variations. His String Quartet No. 2 begins with a first movement that’s in sonata form, but is quickly abandoned for a more rhapsodic unfolding of countervailing arguments, with the cello having much less to say. Still doggedly atonal, the work’s thematic elements remain clear. Finally, the String Quartet No. 3 most definitely will remind the listener of the latter quartets of Shostakovich and of Bartok’s last two, though bereft of their romantic signatures.& Though it’s crisp and assertive – and equally intelligent – it still might put off some listeners. I’ve referenced both Shostakovich and Bartok in this review for several reasons, not least of which is because they have the greatest string quartets of the 20th century and are probably the standard-bearers in that genre. These chamber works – though only four in number – are just as intelligent as the works of the aforementioned composers and we owe Naxos thanks for bringing them out into the sunlight. They might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but they were for me. The Maggini Quartet clearly has an affinity for this music and the recording ambience – so important to chamber music – is quite focused, allowing for both spaciousness and warmth. Rawsthorne fans will definitely want this disc and those of you interested in 20th century modernism in music – as opposed to romanticism – might want to try this as well.






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