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Paul Ingram
Fanfare, May 2009

New Zealander Alfred Hill (1869–1960) has become fairly well known, as neglected composers go, thanks to the success of the previous volume in this Dominion series, which covered the first three of his 17 quartets (welcomed by Colin Anderson in 31:2). As a young player in the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Hill worked with many of the great composers and conductors of the day, and then returned south for a long Antipodean career, most of it in Australia. He was a distinguished academic, and wrote around 500 works. Quartet movements were often rearranged to go into his symphonies, and they also show up in other chamber disguises. But he was a real quartet composer, and if these works are any guide, Hill had the singular virtue of knowing when to stop, so his movements rarely drag. His tunes are good, and plentiful. They are better than the melodies shaped by some of Hill’s supposed models, and he clearly would not write a movement, unless there were some strong themes and textures ready to go into it. The form serves the content, bucking the mid-century trend. Hill’s music, on this showing, is always pleasant to listen to. It starts out like a solid take on the European nationalists, then (already by the time of this Eighth Quartet) grows harmonic tendrils in the manner of Elgar, Delius, Bax, and the earlier Bridge.

What this means, historically, is that by 1934 (the date of the Eighth), Hill’s work had begun to catch late, reflected echoes of the Debussy Quartet (1893), though you can also hear some Debussy in the Fourth Quartet (1916), as well as some Haydnesque moods all through. One movement here is based on a theme from a very well known Classical masterpiece (try the Scherzo of the Sixth Quartet, all of which has fun with Classical models). But towering over Hill’s other models, shading even the Grieg influence, is the Dvořák “American” Quartet. If you don’t like that work, then avoid this Naxos release. You’ll be missing some calm enjoyment, though, if you do. Hill’s individuality shines through (the Fourth in C Minor is a strong piece on its own terms, with a feisty Rondo finale), and the CD has a very positive feel. Playing, recording, and some modest music, entirely idiomatic in the writing for strings, come together to brighten your day.

William Dart
The New Zealand Herald, February 2009

Verdict: A striking second instalment of our chamber music history…There is a pioneering spirit at work in this Naxos project to record all 17 of his Quartets and these Wellington string players are clearly proud to be part of it.

The 1916 Fourth Quartet is at its most adventurous in its second movement. Violist Maurice introduces the first theme tenderly, although one senses Hill is striving for a big tune that never quite comes. A student-exercise Scherzo is cosy and predictable while its Finale, despite an "Allegro con spirito" marking, too often takes a cautious canter in Mendelssohn country.

Eleven years later, the Sixth Quartet, titled The Kids, was intended for Hill's music students at the New South Wales Conservatorium. Working within self-imposed limitations, both technically and musically, the composer achieves some minor miracles, especially in the harmonic quicksand of the work's first 13 bars. Only the stony-hearted could not be swept away by its rollicking Scherzo.

The 1934 Eighth Quartet is made of sterner stuff. Both its harmonic language and its structural ingenuities create a sense of questing and inspire some of the finest playing on the disc, showcased in Wayne Laird's exemplary production.

Bob McQuiston
Classical Lost and Found, January 2009


This is the second volume in Naxos' ongoing survey of Australian composer Alfred Hill's (1869-1960) string quartets. [Vol 1 available on 8.570491 TARGET]. As far as late romantic composers from "Down Under" are concerned, Hill is without a doubt the major one. Born in Australia, he spent most of his early life in New Zealand, but went to Leipzig in 1887, where he studied at the conservatory, graduating in 1891. Hill then returned to New Zealand, spending the rest of his life there and in Australia, where he became a distinguished professor of music and highly prolific composer. While there's confusion over the total number of works he wrote with one estimate running as high as over two thousand, there are seventeen known string quartets.

In Germany Hill encountered the music of all the great European romantic composers. Consequently his early works, including the first three quartets on volume one (see the newsletter of 30 June 2007) show the influence of Dvořák and Tchaikovsky. But by the time we get to the three here, he was beginning to evolve a style all of his own.

The four-movement fourth quartet (1916) appears for the first time in its entirety on this CD. The opening allegro is an engaging tunefest that's followed by a gorgeous adagio with Elgarian overtones. The scherzo apparently dates from his Leipzig years, and sounds somewhat folksy as well as Viennese in spirit. The final rondo might well have been inspired by one of Beethoven’s late quartets. Perspicacious listeners familiar with Hill's Pursuit of Happiness Symphony (No. 4, 1941) will recognize that its first two movements are orchestrations of those opening this quartet.

Intended for performance by his students, the sixth quartet (1927) is subtitled "The Kids." Hill shows his considerable skill as a composer by writing a piece that can be played by beginners, but has enough musical sophistication to hold listener interest. He does this by adhering to simple classical structures like those found in the quartets of Mozart and Schubert, while impregnating the music with wonderfully inventive rhythms and harmonies.

The last offering on this disc is the eighth quartet (1934), which after almost seventy-five years makes its debut here. In four movements, the opening one begins with an impressionistic sounding introduction that could almost be out of Debussy or Ravel. Then a couple of lovely melodic ideas are introduced which form the basis for what turns out to be a sonata form allegro. The brief mercurial intermezzo and beautiful, at times pentatonic, andante that follow find Hill at the height of his creative powers. The finale is for the most part rather English-sounding, and has a fugal central development section. French influences are also present in the form of more Ravel-like passages, and the cyclic return of previous motifs à la César Franck. The work ends with a jocund hee-haw coda as if Hill were asking his audience not to take him too seriously.

The performances by the Dominion String Quartet of New Zealand, while for the most part committed, are a bit perfunctory in places. This will be particularly apparent to those who have the Australian String Quartet's performance of "The Kids" that appeared a number of years ago on a Marco Polo CD (no longer available). But with repertoire this rare and interesting, we're lucky to have what's here.

The recordings are generally good with an adequate soundstage, but some may find the venue rather confining. The string sound is certainly natural, but there are isolated low frequency noises, probably occasioned by traffic outside the theater where these recordings were made.

Jonathan Woolf
MusicWeb International, December 2008

The second volume in Naxos’s edition of Alfred Hill’s string quartets gives us an even numbered trio of works where the first [.570491] offered the opening salvo of the first three of them. The quartets recorded here come from three different decades. The earliest, the Fourth, was written slap bang in the middle of the First World War whilst the second came just before the Great Depression. No. 8 dates from 1934, so that chronology has been replaced by a more discursive, selective approach.

As before I’ve not heard any rival recordings—though it would have been interesting to have heard the Australian Quartet in the Sixth (Marco Polo 8.223746) and before the Eleventh is released I’d like to hear them in that too, as Hill always said that this was his favourite from amongst his corpus of quartets.

So let’s get down to it. As we saw in the previous volume the post-Leipzig hangover lasted quite a time for Hill and I have to report that the same range of influences is strongly active in these works though as we move forward the importance of Debussy becomes more evident. The Fourth Quartet dates from 1916. Immediately one thinks of Dvořák and maybe very early Bridge—the Bridge who arranged lighter fare such as Londonderry Air for example and certainly not the later exploratory chamber composer. Slavic elements are present, as well as maybe a little Elgar in the slow movement, which is gravely lyric in Hill’s best style. The scherzo is engaging with a lilting B section and a strong drone running through, folkloric and Dvořákian once more. Hill sometimes evoked Schubert in these works – and there’s an element of that in the finale along with some generous lyricism and plenty of vitality. Incidentally the first two movements of the quartet were recycled by Hill for the first two movements of his Symphony in C minor known as ‘The Pursuit of Happiness’.

Quartet No. 6 was probably composed in Sydney, in 1927. Its subtitle, The Kids, refers to his composition students at the New South Wales Conservatorium of Music where he taught. It’s light and frothy, very much in the vein of an educative work, written for students and not too demanding at all. It adheres to classical principles but is at its best in the second movement which advances a fine chorale-like tune and some interesting opportunities for characterisation.  The third movement is the most harmonically up-to-date; elsewhere there’s a fugal, Haydn influenced finale.

Stronger challenges come in the Eighth Quartet. This is influenced by Debussy though there are still residual Dvořákian elements as well, even this relatively late in the compositional day. The scherzo is fleet, fast and furious and over in a flash. But the Debussian slow movement resolves to warmly lyric writing and is the centrepiece of the quartet.  The fusing of impressionist and pleine air moments is a marked feature of the writing.

The recording quality once again is excellent and the playing committed. There’s more to get one’s teeth into with this volume of the quartets though I am keenly awaiting as I noted earlier the volume containing a performance of No. 11.

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