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Richard Bratby
Gramophone, December 2019

A celebration of the British string quartet

It’s at moments like this that I wonder if we take Naxos for granted. In 2001 the appearance of, say, a cycle of Bax string quartets, in excellent performances, at budget price seemed little short of miraculous. Those who were around at the time were aware, I think, that something remarkable was under way; the reviews were generally warm. But still, presented like this – a hefty 20-disc box of British string quartets, recorded by the Maggini Quartet between 1994 and 2009 – the enterprise looks little short of heroic: a 15-year voyage of discovery, unlocking a glorious swathe of largely neglected 20th-century repertoire.

This is a feast of eminently explorable repertoire in performances which were often the first, and are even more frequently the finest, on record. © 2019 Gramophone

The British Music Society, October 2019

The recordings are uniformly excellent—in this digital age everything comes up clean, and it is as though the issues are completely new… © 2019 The British Music Society

David Denton
David's Review Corner, September 2019

The most comprehensive survey of British String Quartets placed on disc and performed by the one quartet, is now being released in a compact and elegant box.

I guess that when the young Maggini Quartet met in an east London church for a recording session of music by Frank Bridge on a cold December morning in 1994, they could not have imagined that they were about to embark on a twenty disc series of British chamber music that would stretch over the next fifteen years. Released during that same time-frame, they are now gathered together, each original disc contained in a slip case within the box to economise on shelf space. The contents replicate the original releases, retaining the disc’s front cover picture and the contents on the reverse, the excellent and extensive programme notes now in the enclosed booklet. There was to be only one change in its members, but sadly this release comes as a memorial to the second violin, David Angel, who died last year, his violin, made by Maggini, having given the quartet its name. He had, from the outset, set an objective of having the works included in the quartet’s concert repertoire before they were placed on disc. It was a familiarity that took the Maggini deep below the printed page, the quality of those early recordings reflected in the American magazine, Fanfare, where I described their performance of Ernest Moeran’s String Quartets as ‘one of the best British chamber discs I have heard’. That release had followed on from their highly acclaimed 1995 recording of Edward Elgar’s String Quartet, his music replete with the nostalgia for England of yesteryear that perfectly set the scene for the whole project, the tonal warmth the Maggini brought to their performance becoming the feature we looked towards with each new release. The three published quartets by Frank Bridge’s most famous pupil, Benjamin Britten, was the next instalment on two discs, the Maggini’s approach to the many dramatic moments in all three scores being both natural and unforced, the ‘hell for leather’ approach to the first quartet’s finale, that mars other recorded performances, here thankfully avoided, while the scores, that are far from easy, are played with immaculate intonation and balance between instruments. Next in the series came—in an obvious stylistic progression—to William Walton’s only String Quartet. Here coupled with the Piano Quintet with Peter Donohoe as the pianist. If the quartet rather leans towards a Germanic influence, everything is as it should be, the playful scherzo aimed at public approbation, while the superb account of the quintet is vintage Walton.

Two discs, taking the project into the 21st century, came with all three of Arnold Bax’s seldom heard works. Here the Maggini bring to the fore all the illusiveness of his writing in the First Quartet, one minute sounding very French, while the next has an Elgarian sadness. Totally different was a dark and troubled Second reflecting the events of the First World War, before Bax went into quiet retirement, what drama there was in the Third almost superimposed on the music. At the time of the second disc, my apt description of the Maggini’s Bax was ‘an example of the art of quartet recording’. The composer’s present neglect is shared by Arthur Bliss, and I hope that the Maggini’s reputation on the international music scene will introduce the world to his fine scores, the listener-friendly First String Quartet could well have come from an inspired Elgar. There was a gap of nineteen years before he completed the Second Quartet, and in that period you will find an abstract and coldness had entered his music, though it was a masterpiece in his modest list of compositions. If Ralph Vaughan Williams did not suffer that same neglect, his chamber music is an exception, a fact made doubly sad when you hear these eloquent performances. The Second Quartet completed in 1943, was a towering achievement of the time, and should stand beside Shostakovich’s quartets, the aggressive solo viola setting the scene for VW’s response to conflict after he had served in the army during the First World War.

The Maggini’s return to Frank Bridge brought a disc containing the quite remarkable First Quartet. Composed in 1901 it is almost unbelievable in its originality and forward thinking content, his ability to marry the realms of the Second Viennese School into lyricism being quite extraordinary. Even by their standards, the Maggini here created something very special. It is coupled with his Third, though by that time he had engendered a friendly version of serialism. It was the next Bridge release, containing two string quartets and Phantasy Quintet, together with some short ‘pop’ quartet works, that became the year’s winner of the Chamber Music category in the Gramophone Awards.

John Ireland’s music entered the project in 2006. A shy and lonely person, so uncertain of himself as to destroy all of his early compositions, though thankfully two of his string quartets survived his carnage. Though they were not published until after his death, they had been completed when he was 18, and the influences of his mentor, Charles Villiers Stanford, are obvious together with a free free-flowing Englishness inherited from the Elgarian era. Maybe I would stop short of describing them as lost masterpieces, yet when I reach performances shaped with such total conviction, I am pleasingly won over. At much the same time came a release of Alan Rawsthorne’s three quartets, works that spanned twenty-six years, his thoughts distilled into quite brief and thoughtfully sculptured scores. He had the misfortune of having a career which straddled the Second World War, and when he returned to composing at its conclusion, he seemed unwilling, or unable, to move his style to meet those changing cultural times and it struggled to accept atonality. His relatively early death at the age of 66 left no one to champion music that was quickly disappearing from public view. The First was completed in 1938, and was shaped as a Theme and Variations—and I will not pretend that this and the following two quartets in his version of tonality, will instantly lodge in your memory, and, for once, I do not have the feeling the Maggini were convinced of their longevity.

Listen to the next release and I guess you would not append the name of Malcolm Arnold to its two quartets. Both cast in the conventional three movements, Arnold’s influences seemingly coming from central Europe, and very unlike his symphonic output, the puckish quality we have become accustomed to rarely surfacing. I must be equally honest in finding parts of the Second rather threadbare, both works contain passages of technical difficulties, not least in the many violin solos. So it was fitting they should be played by Laurence Jackson before his departure from the Maggini.

The following year, 2008, marked the release of William Alwyn’s Three Quartets. He had been composing in this genre through much of his life, but eventually thought only three worthy of publication. He had become obsessed with producing scores where the four voices were of equal importance. Put that fact to the back of your mind, for the sounds Alwyn created are both personal and refreshing. They were used to engender unease in the First from 1954; unadulterated anger in the Second which dates from twenty years later; the Third becoming hard-edged and hugely thought provoking. They receive performances pose the question as to why they have not become part of the standard repertoire.

More music rescued from oblivion comes with Lennox Berkeley’s Three Quartets released on one disc in December 2007. He was always well received by the critics, but was studying in Paris in the 1920’s and 30’s at a time when nationalism was all the rage in the UK. So we find little of his homeland in the First Quartet, its hard-hitting mix of tonality and atonality reflecting French fashion of the period. Six years later atonality had given way to lyricism in the three movements of the Second Quartet, but when another twenty-nine years serial techniques had returned in the Third where anger is mixed with sadness. Whatever your feelings about the music itself, the Maggini are certainly convincing in their performances. Yet if Berkeley did not fit comfortably into British music, Edmund Rubbra, could be described as an outcast, and almost totally forgotten thirty three years after his death. He composed four quartets, here spread over two discs, the First carrying forward the influences of Holst and Vaughan Williams, while the Second completed in 1954 contains a meditative third movement that must take its place among the great beauties of English chamber music. Rubbra chose, nine years later in the Third, a hard-edged quality intermittent with an attractive melody, that quality also coming in his farewell to the world in the Fourth.

I have not commented individually on the sound quality, as, with just one exception, the twenty discs have enjoyed the same excellent production team. Neither have I commented on the many shorter works that have been included to fill vacant space, though and I have to mention Bliss’s much extended and purposeful Clarinet Quintet given an outstanding reading with David Campbell as soloist.

A hugely successful project and a landmark in British music recordings, and I recommend it to you without reservation. © 2019 David's Review Corner

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