About this Recording
8.572446 - HILL, Alfred: String Quartets, Vol. 3 (Dominion String Quartet) - Nos. 5, 7, 9

Alfred Hill (1869–1960)
String Quartets Vol. 3


While Australian by birth, Alfred Hill lived in New Zealand from the age of two until seventeen, principally in Wellington, after which he began studies at the Leipzig Conservatorium, where he encountered Brahms, Dvořák, Tchaikovsky, Strauss and many other luminaries of the era. After completing his studies in violin and piano in 1891 and receiving the prestigious Helbig award for composition, he lived principally in Wellington for almost twenty years with some shorter residencies in Australia. In 1910 he moved to Sydney where he lived for the rest of his life. He was the only significant composer of Australia and New Zealand representing the Late Romantic era. While the influences of his immediate predecessors are clearly obvious in his early works, his style evolved with some absorption of later styles, though he rejected breaking from the long established traditions of Europe. His prolific output included ten operas (some on Maori themes), thirteen symphonies, seventeen string quartets, many choral works, concertos, chamber music, sonatas, songs and short works for a variety of instruments. Researcher and publisher, Allan Stiles, has noted that there are over 2,000 titles attributable to Alfred Hill and of those, many have never been published and relatively few commercially recorded. His use of Maori music and references to Maori culture were enduring and he later developed an interest in the music of the Australian aborigines. He is respectfully remembered by Maori as Arapeta Hira.

Soon after arriving in Sydney in 1910 Hill became a member of the Austral String Quartet and later wrote string quartets for Henri Verbrugghen’s quartet and others. In 1916 the New South Wales Conservatorium (now the Sydney Conservatorium) was established and Hill was appointed as its first Professor of Composition. While Volume 1 of this series (Naxos 8.570491: Quartets Nos. 1, 2 and 3) demonstrates his early style, with strong influence of Dvořák and Tchaikovsky, Volume 2 (Naxos 8.572097: Quartets Nos. 4, 6 and 8) spans 1916–1934 and accordingly offers excellent examples of how much his style evolved during this middle period of his output. Volume 3, with Quartets Nos. 5, 7 and 9, traverses a similar period and the influence of impressionism in Quartet No. 8, hinted at in Quartet No. 7, is well absorbed by Quartet No. 9. Quartets Nos. 7 and 8 were written in 1934, his final year at the Conservatorium in Sydney, perhaps paving the way for more freedom in his own style in his retirement. While his orchestrations of earlier quartets into symphonies may seem to imply a return to the nineteenth-century idiom, the later quartets demonstrate that in fact his style had continued to evolve, and that the symphonies were simply orchestrations of quartets composed much earlier.

String Quartet No. 5 in E flat major ‘The Allies’ (1920), dedicated to Henri Verbrugghen, whose quartet first performed it, was subsequently orchestrated as Symphony No. 11 in E flat, and renamed The Four Nations. Of his first six quartets Hill gave subtitles to all but the fourth, reflecting their programmatic nature. While the most explicit example of a programme comes with the second quartet, A Maori Legend in Four Scenes, the fifth is really no more than an abstracted musical essence of the four nations he identifies. In the Allegro risoluto – Andantino, the composer’s notes identify France with the subtitle Artistic. The Intermezzo: Allegro moderato depicts America and is subtitled Syncopated. The Romance is assigned to Italy with the subtitle Romantic, while the Finale: Allegretto characterizes Britain and is subtitled Nautical. At nearly half an hour this is one of the most substantial quartets with a wealth of thematic material offered and the dedication of each movement to a specific country giving Hill ample scope to develop four self-contained nationalistic portraits.

While the Maestoso – Allegro moderato of String Quartet No. 7 in A major (1934) recalls some of the innocence of the first quartet, the refinement gained in the interceding forty odd years is evident with the striking contrast between the first and second subjects in the exposition and some interesting harmonic progressions in the relatively brief development section. The second movement Intermezzo – Allegretto features a quirky figure with alternating pizzicato and arco in the outer sections, framing a contrasting wistful melody in the central section. Hill’s mastery of slow movements does not disappoint in the Andante and it is here that hints of impressionism first appear in his quartet writing, perhaps reflecting his own increasing familiarity with the quartets of Debussy and Ravel, which were well-established in the European repertory, though no doubt still considered ‘modern’ by Australasian standards. The reference is fleeting but given what happens soon after in the eighth quartet is significant. The Finale: Allegro begins with a gentle lilting melody opening out into a movement characterised by eloquence rather than drama. A brief recall of the opening of the first movement, which transforms into a distinctly Dvořákian ending, essentially marks the close of Hill’s middle period.

The Adagio – Allegro of String Quartet No. 9 in A minor (1935), after a brief introduction built on a D minor seventh chord, settles into a strident melody with a constantly evolving harmonic texture. In dramatic contrast to material in the exposition, the development section has the viola introducing a brief fugue in a more relaxed tempo using the opening adagio motive. Following on from the Quartets No. 7 and No. 8, the Andantino exemplifies Hill’s penchant at this time for impressionist influence in his slow movements. The harmonic language in the middle section is arguably his most adventurous to date. The Scherzo snaps us back to the lighter side of his style with virtuosic 1st violin motives and effective ambiguity of triple and duple cross rhythms. The Finale: Maestoso begins boldly with hints of Iberian influence, soon followed by a much gentler idea in the familiar Dvořákian melodic and harmonic language of earlier quartets. Both ideas are developed through the movement, with a reconciliation of both in the closing section. This is the first quartet completed after Hill’s retirement and as such could be considered as marking the commencement of his late period.

Donald Maurice

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