About this Recording
8.553737 - ELGAR, E.: String Quartet in E Minor / Piano Quintet in A Minor (Donohoe, Maggini Quartet)

Edward Elgar (1857-1934)
String Quartet in E minor, Op.83
Piano Quintet in A minor, Op. 84


"Everything good and nice and clean and fresh and sweet is far away - never to return" ...Elgar ’a Alice Stuart Wortley, 18th September, 1917.

The String Quartet and Piano Quintet belong to the late autumn of Elgar’s compositional life. Wearied and depressed by the war years, his retreat to the Sussex cottage "Brinkwells" revived his spirits, and this renewed but temporary sense of well-being produced the three great chamber works and the Cello Concerto. Nothing further of significance was penned before his death in 1934 and efforts to write a third symphony remained as sketches.

Elgar’s diary records him writing "E minor stuff" in April 1918 and it is significant that of the four works dating from this period, three are in that key. Many earlier attempts at a quartet never materialised. A D minor exposition appeared in his 1878 sketch books and in 1907 there is reference in Lady Elgar’s diary to a quartet, but it was put aside in favour of work for the First Symphony. In a similar way, after the completion of the first movement of the E minor Quartet, the Violin Sonata took precedence and the work was therefore completed in tandem with the Piano Quintet.

The first movement of the String Quartet is in 12/8 and the first subject is presented as an ascending, questioning motif, followed by a typical sequential descending passage in fourths. The second subject finds a more settled mood, but the general feeling is of unrest and uncertainty, ending enigmatically with the first half of the first subject seemingly hanging in the air. The slow movement, marked Piacevole, has a simple song-like melody as its first theme, A complete contrast to the first movement, Alice Elgar described it as "captured sunshine". Completed on Christmas Eve 1918, the last movement is passionate and forceful. Elgar fulfilled a promise from the early years of the century by dedicating the quartet to the Brodsky Quartet, although the première was given by the British String Quartet.

The "reminiscence of sinister trees" (Alice Elgar) refers to the partly programmatic element that pervades the Piano Quintet. The "sinister trees" were once struck by lightning on ground above "Brinkwells", around which had arisen the story (most likely invented by Elgar’s friend Algernon Blackwell) that they represented the dead forms of a settlement of Spanish monks, duly punished for their "impious rites". The Moderato introduction of the first movement contrasts the almost plainsong-like piano line with the ghostly interjections from the strings. The following Allegro relentlessly pursues a 6/8 motif until, after a pause, the "Spanish" second subject is heard on the violins, accompanied by pizzicato chords in the manner of a guitar. Both the plainsong first statement and the second subject have the minor second of the Phrygian mode which further emphasizes a Moorish influence. The radiant beauty of the Adagio begins with a seamless melody for the viola -redolent with longing. It is significant that this movement meant a great deal to Elgar. The cyclical nature of the work continues through the last movement, beginning as it does with the direct reference to the first movement introduction. A purposeful Allegro is heard on unison strings and the A major conclusion banishes the occult inspired "ghostly-stuff" of the first movement.

Both works received their first performance at the Wigmore Hall on 21st May, 1919.

1997 by Andrew Walton.

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